In an African nation that has long been embattled, an international group of conservationists is struggling to save a diverse and irreplaceable park.
The Upemba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo was once a tourist magnet. It provided a sanctuary to a number of animal species, from pachyderms to amphibians. The park’s boundaries encompassed several unique and thriving bioregions, including Savannah plateau and Miombo woodlands. And it had strong infrastructure with a staff willing and able to support it.
But in 2004, a Mai-Mai Militia group swept into the Upemba National Park headquarters, destroying the park’s infrastructure and murdering seven people, including park rangers and the wife of the park warden.
Since then, The Upemba National Park, and its neighbor the Kundelungu National Park, have suffered from neglect and a lack of funding. At its creation in 1939 (it is the second-oldest national park in the world), the boundaries of the Upemba covered a surface area of 17,730 squared kilometers. Today, those boundaries have shrunk to a surface area of 10,000 square kilometers. The animal population has dwindled over the years, the result of poaching, political instability and violence.
According to a blog entry by Robert Muir, a member of Frankfurt Zoological Society, the park today is a mere ghost of its former self.
“To paraphrase a colleague here, it’s a miracle that these abandoned rangers continue to find the courage to carry on protecting what is left of this park,” he wrote. “The overall sense one has is that this park has been forgotten and neglected in time and space.”
But throughout this spring and summer, conservationist groups from the EU, along with the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN), members from the Upemba and Kundelungu National Parks, and coservationists from the US, will set in motion the first internationally sponsored rehabilitation project for the Upemba and neighboring Kundelungu.
Spearheading the project is the Frankfurt Zoological Society, out of Frankfurt Germany, which has been involved in dozens of rehabilitation projects throughout Africa. They will work closely with the Congolese Wildlife Authority to establish a number of long and short-term goals.
According to the project page, the goals are as follows:
- Rebuild critical park infrastructure
- Provide anti-poaching training and field equipment for park rangers
- Reintroduce wildlife into newly secured areas within the park – target date of 15 May 2012, Upemba’s 73rd Anniversary
- Support to community development and education
- Develop tourism
Robert Ford and Michael McBride, American conservationists, have traveled to the DRC to work as consultants for the expedition. Both men have worked for decades to conserve national parks, spanning from Alaska to the African veldt.
According to McBride’s blog posts, which are posted periodically on the National Geographic blog, the teams met several times in April and began drafting a comprehensive master-development plan.
The project will focus on the animals. For example, the last remaining zebra in the DRC still live in the park. In addition, the last remaining elephants in the province of Katanga currently reside just outside the northern park boundaries. The project hopes to revitalize the zebra population, making the park a final bastion. It also plans to reintroduce the elephant population into the safe haven of the park.
Going beyond that, the team recognizes that the DRC is a highly impoverished country and so will work to build schools and dispensaries within the park, all with the end-goal of nurturing a harmonious relationship between animals and people.
Yet the group faces many difficulties, especially as the country continues to pivot toward violence. A dispatch from the Frankfurt Zoological Society dated June 20, for example, described how the staff was evacuated from Virunga National Park, a nature preserve located nearby in the DRC. They took this measure due to the “widespread violence and conflict in and around the park.”
While McBride’s most recent update from the field mentioned nothing of the neighboring violence, the news from Virunga–the oldest National Park in the world–is a reminder of the Upemba’s precarity.
There is a lot at stake, but the rangers and the FZS participants are committed and funded for the next two years.
“Imagine a day when rhinos, lions, elephants and zebras once again roam the grassy savannahs of Upemba,” Muir wrote in the blog post.
More updates and photos can be found at Robert Ford’s blog.
Photo: Zebra dash across a Savannah in the Upemba National Park, the last remaining Zebra in the DRC. Photo Credit: Upemba National Park Coservation Project, Frankfurt Zoological Society.