NAIROBI, KENYA and WASHINGTON DC – With international relief organizations estimating that more than 35,000 people have fled the heavily armed conflict near Sake in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo over the past week, the World Wildlife Fund warned that the habitats of several endangered species, including mountain gorillas, could be put at serious risk.
Officials with WWF said they were working closely with the UN’s High Commission on Refugees and CARE to balance the fuel needs of the displaced population with ongoing efforts to preserve the natural habitat of the nearby Virunga National Park.
“With tens of thousands of people in the region looking for food, shelter and fuelwood, we are seeking to help the UN as it addresses the very real humanitarian needs of the population, while doing our best to protect the park,” said Marc Languy, WWF’s Eastern Africa Regional Program Office.
WWF experts warned that one key challenge will be to provide the necessary fuel for heating and cooking so that refugees do not begin to harvest wood from the park’s forest. The park has yet to recover from the period during 1994-95 when hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Rwanda arrived in the region, virtually destroying the forest.
“Solving the problem of fuel, shelter and food for thousands of displaced people is critical to the continued safety of the mountain gorillas and their forested habitat,” said Richard Carroll, managing director for WWF’s Congo Basin Program. “Park rangers are now combing the forest to locate the habituated gorillas and confirm their status.”
The Virunga mountains are home to the last remaining mountain gorillas with half of that population residing within the boundaries of the Virunga National Park.
People fleeing the fighting in Sake, located west of Goma, the largest town in the region, have spontaneously set up three camps for internally displaced people in Mugunga, a small town next to the Virunga National Park. In addition, part of the Lac Vert Camp is actually located within the park.
Under a program funded by the European Union, WWF is working closely with UNHCR and the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature to find solutions to the fuel crisis that will pose minimal impact to the park. These include regulating the collection of wood and identifying alternative fuel sources from nearby plantations, most of which are located among the 10 million trees WWF has helped these communities plant over the past 20 years.
“With an average of 12kg of wood per family per day, we are looking at about 50 tons of wood to be collected every day, presenting a real challenge for both humanitarian and conservation NGOs,” explained Languy.
WWF has also met with UNHCR to identify potential settlement areas for the displaced people that will have the least impact on the park.
While recent threats to mountain gorillas – nine have been killed in the past few months – seem to be gradually abating, WWF officials say that habitat destruction and deforestation remain the most important concerns, as they have the most far-reaching and long-lasting effects on the park’s biodiversity.
UNHCR is urging the displaced people to move from the Lac Vert Camp to a new camp that could accommodate up to 5,000 families. This is an encouraging sign that will help reduce the damages to the park, WWF experts said, urging other NGOs working in the region to respect national and international law and not build infrastructure within the protected area.
Virunga National Park is a designated World Heritage Site by UNESCO.