Congo (DRC)

The Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire (and in colonial times as the Belgian Congo), is as large as all of Western Europe and contains more than half of Africa’s remaining rainforest within its borders. In addition to these vast lowland rainforests, the country's landscape spans mountain forests, bamboo forests, savannas, and marshes that are home to an array of quintessential African animals. Three of the four gorilla subspecies live here, as do bonobos, forest elephants, giraffes, forest buffalo, leopards, and Congo peacocks. Many lesser-known species—some of which have only recently been discovered—also make their home in the country.

Although DR Congo contains large wilderness areas, its ecosystems—even those in extremely remote areas—suffered greatly from the period of intensive civil strife between 1995 and 2003. Many have yet to recover. Significant problems persist, and more loom on the horizon. Financial and administrative constraints make it difficult for the government of DR Congo to invest in its park system, and an unstable security situation continues to threaten the gorillas, elephants, and other large mammals.

Fast Facts

  • A single 100-acre block of forest in the Ituri National Park was found to contain 700 species of trees and liana vines.
  • Bonobos (along with the common chimpanzee) are the primate most closely related to humans, yet are the least well known of the African great apes. Discovered in 1935 and found only in DR Congo, some populations remain relatively isolated within the low-lying forests south of the Congo River.
  • Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest, having been established in 1925, and includes landscapes ranging from glaciers to lowland forests and active volcanoes.
  • Virunga harbors more types of birds (706) and mammals (196) species than any other national park in Africa. It also contains 109 reptile, 78 amphibian, and more than 2,000 plant species.
  • The rare okapi, known as the “rainforest giraffe” because of its long neck, the shape of its ears, and its long tongue, is native to the Ituri Forest of DR Congo.
  • WCS helped establish the Okapi Faunal Reserve, an area roughly the size of Connecticut. The reserve became a World Heritage Site in 1992, with the aid of Mbuti Pygmies.

Challenges

As DR Congo struggles to emerge from nearly a decade of conflict, the country’s remaining natural landscapes are targets for unprecedented levels of exploitation and settlement. Its protected areas and national parks face a range of threats. Immigration into the parks has been increasing rapidly over the past two decades by people seeking access to forest resources, especially arable land, bushmeat, gold, diamonds, coltan (a key component in the manufacture of cell phones), and other minerals. Illegal mining, poaching of ivory and other resources, and extensive cattle herding threaten wildlife and their habitats—problems that often persist even when armed militias are present. These challenges are compounded by unmarked boundaries and, in some cases, lack of public respect for the parks.

Gorilla conservation in Kahuzi-Biega National Park has been a particular challenge; in addition to the recent armed conflict, during which many animals were killed, thousands of refugees from neighboring Rwanda’s civil war and genocide camped on the park’s borders in the mid-1990s and depended upon the use of its resources for their survival. This park also suffers from the rapid spread of an invasive highland liana vine, which has choked out many local plant species important to the gorillas’ diet.

WCS Responds

WCS researchers undertook the first pioneering surveys of gorilla populations in the mountains and plateaus of the country’s western Albertine Rift in 1959. In 1985, WCS returned to DR Congo to establish a long-term base east of the rift in the Ituri Forest, home of the okapi. After lobbying successfully for the creation of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in 1992, WCS set up a conservation research and training center in the reserve for international and Congolese scientists to study the country’s biodiversity.

While most conservation programs were suspended in the country from 1995–2003, WCS actually expanded its activities during this period of civil strife. Throughout the armed conflict, WCS-DR Congo staff often took the lead in calling attention to poaching by military factions, militia involvement in illegal mining, and the rampant exploitation of local populations. After the country held its first democratic elections in 2006, the government began to re-establish order and rebuild roads, and today strives to bring an end to chronic civil unrest in the east. During this prolonged recovery period, WCS is working closely with villagers to restore respect for protected areas and to ensure their protection. Our conservationists conduct census and zoning programs, and continue to conduct biological and socio-economic surveys. In addition to working with communities to address the varied and growing threats to their natural heritage, WCS works closely with the Congolese government to find ways to preserve its wildlife and wild lands, while alleviating human poverty.

WCS Projects

Ecoguards of Central Africa

As the eyes and ears for conservationists, ecoguards work not only to protect national parks and surrounding lands, but also to help evaluate the success of international conservation efforts.

Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever Virus

Throughout Ebola high-risk zones, our researchers assess great ape health and improve Ebola prevention awareness in remote communities.

From the Newsroom

More Devastating News for Forest ElephantsFebruary 12, 2014

The authors of a landmark 2013 study, coordinated by WCS, show that forest elephant poaching continues apace, with 65 percent of the animals lost between 2002 and 2013. The information was released at the United for Wildlife International Wildlife Trafficking Symposium at the Zoological Society of London.

Study Sheds Light on Forgotten ApesNovember 25, 2013

A recent study discovered that bonobos, formerly known as pygmy chimpanzees, are in danger of losing their habitats.

Progress Report: Saving Amphibians in The DRCSeptember 16, 2013

Conservationists are working with local communities to protect the biodiversity of the Albertine Rift.

New Park Protects 15,000 GorillasJanuary 31, 2013

The Republic of Congo has just announced creation of a new national park that protects some 15,000 western lowland gorillas. Ntokou-Pikounda National Park also provides safe harbor for an estimated 800 elephants and 950 chimpanzees, as well as a remote swamp WCS researchers call the "Green Abyss."

New World Heritage Site in Wild Heart of Central AfricaJuly 2, 2012

Forest elephants congregate en masse within TNS, a new World Heritage Site, sometimes in groups of 100 or more. Nowhere else in the world are this many forest elephants spotted together. 

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