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New Refuge for Congo’s Rainforest Wildlife

Dem. Rep. of Congo

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  • Baby Okapi. Photo by Josh More

To protect one of the Congo’s most biodiverse landscapes, Rainforest Trust is working to establish the 1,194,507-acre Balanga Forest Reserve.  The proposed protected area will strategically expand protection for wildlife beside the Lomami National Park. Your support will also establish highly-trained and well-equipped anti-poaching patrols across the region to protect one of the most important surviving populations of forest elephants as well as threatened primates.

The Congo basin, where the proposed Balanga Forest Reserve is located, encompasses millions of acres in the heart of Africa and holds some of the highest levels of biodiversity on Earth. Habitats ranging from lowland tropical to montane forests, swamps and natural savannas provide refuge for a stunning range of unique wildlife species, some found nowhere else, like the newly discovered Lesula monkey.  Okapis, Bonobos, and a diverse assemblage of birds all find sanctuary in Balanga’s intact old growth rainforests, one of the most pristine wilderness areas in the Congo basin.

Despite the Congo being the second largest area of tropical forest remaining on Earth, it remains the least protected rainforest and most vulnerable to destruction. As the region slowly emerges from decades of conflict, threats to the Congo’s green treasure trove of incredibly rich forests are rapidly rising. We must act now to save it before it is too late.

  • Two young Lesulas. Photo by TL2/LUKURU

At nearly 3.4 million acres, the Balanga Forest Reserve along with the contiguous Lomami National Park will form one of the largest and most important refuges for wildlife in the Congo – an area almost as large as the state of Connecticut.

Singer-songwriter Julie Gold has provided Rainforest Trust the rights to use her Grammy Award-winning song, “From a Distance”, in a video highlighting the importance of protecting the rainforest. Special thanks to Julie Gold “From A Distance” (Irving Music, Inc., BMI), Luc Jacquet & Bonne Pioche Cinema “Once Upon A Forest”.

Biodiversity

  • Blue Monkey. Photo by Peter Seward

The proposed Balanga Forest Reserve will provide a critical corridor between forest areas for one of the Congo’s last remaining elephant populations. Prized on the black market for their tusks, Forest Elephants are now highly threatened by uncontrolled poaching. Their situation has been exacerbated by the fact that nearly two-thirds of their habitat has been lost within the last thirty years.

The proposed reserve will also protect the elusive and endangered Okapi – a hoofed animal that bears the striped markings of zebras and is the only other living member of the giraffe family. Okapi have suffered a severe population decline (exceeding 50%) over the last two decades, which is projected to continue if conservation measures are not implemented.

A range of primate diversity unprecedented within Africa’s protected areas is found within Balanga. Some of its primate species, such as the recently discovered Lesula, occur in no other protected area globally. Other important primates found in the area include Bonobos, Mona Monkeys, Blue Monkeys and Red Tailed Monkeys. Critically Endangered Dryas Monkeys (only discovered in the Congo basin in 2014), may be living deep within Balanga’s rainforest, but further exploration is needed.

There is also a high diversity of birds, including important populations of parrots and migratory birds. While few bird surveys have been conducted to date, 275 species have been recorded in and around this area. Among avifauna of special concern is the Congo Peafowl. The proposed Balanga Forest Reserve contains one of the most important populations of this species.

Challenges

  • Isolation and lack of development hinder community conservation. Photo by TL2 project/Lukuru

The main challenge facing wildlife in the proposed Balanga Forest Reserve are bushmeat hunting and elephant poaching by criminal gangs. Widespread hunting has already affected mammal populations throughout much of the DRC.

A concentrated population of African Forest Elephants in the northern areas of the proposed park is gravely threatened by poachers. Based in remote hunting camps, poaching gangs trade ivory for arms and ammunition. Forest Elephant populations throughout Central Africa have been decimated by poachers.

Bonobos, an endemic species found only in the DRC, are principally threatened by bushmeat hunting throughout their range. Bonobos avoid fragmented forests and areas affected by human activity. Less than 30% of their original range remains habitable and only a quarter of this remaining area is protected.

Bonobo populations have suffered a dramatic decline. Total populations have decreased by 50% since the 1970s, leaving only 10,000 to 20,000 of these endangered species in the wild today.  Contributing further to their population decline, Bonobos only bear offspring every 4 to 5 years.

Communities

  • Local Girl Collecting Firewood. Photo by CIFOR

In the area of the proposed Balanga Forest Reserve, there are seven small villages with a total population of approximately a thousand from the traditional Balanga, Mbole and pygmy indigenous groups. Local economies are based upon subsistence agriculture, hunting, and fishing.

Our local partner has formed close, collaborative partnerships with the villagers in the region. Thanks to our partner’s successful outreach efforts, the local communities actively solicited the establishment of their land as a protected area. They made this request in order to prevent outside criminal gangs from invading their forest with the intention of establishing bushmeat hunting and elephant poaching camps. Well-trained reserve guards- members of these communities- will not only protect the area’s rich wildlife, but also provide stability and safety for its indigenous inhabitants.

Landscape

  • Balanga Forest Reserve is situated in the Lomami River Basin with access to several rivers nearby. Photo by Paul Godard

The proposed Balanga Forest Reserve is located on the west bank of the Lomami River, beside the western border of Lomami National Park. The area spans equatorial closed forest which forms a continuous forest cover to flooded and riverine forests. A ridge of hills running north-south marks the divide between Lomami and neighboring Tshuapa Province. These hills reach almost 3000 feet; the average altitude of the zone is 1900 feet.

Ecosystem dynamics are influenced by major seasonal variations in rainfall, with average rainfall totaling nearly 80 inches. The landscape’s largest river, the Lomami, empties into the Congo River more than 375 miles from the southern limit of Lomami National Park. A remote plateau, dominating the western corner of the proposed Balanga Forest Reserve, has yet to be studied and holds high likelihood for major faunal and floral discoveries.

Solutions

  • The new protected area will be one of the few parks created in Africa with major local involvement. Photo by TL2 project/Lukuru

The proposed Balanga Forest Reserve will create additional critical protection for wildlife adjacent to Lomami National Park, while strengthening enforcement and anti-poaching patrols in the region.

Importantly, the new Balanga Forest Reserve will be established with major involvement of local communities. This participatory, bottom-up approach has provided a voice to the concerns of the local population.

Our partner is working to offer appropriate economic alternatives for the area by hiring and collaborating with local park guards to strengthen protection efforts.  These guards will play a critical role in halting poaching and ensuring the lasting protection of Balanga’s Okapi, Forest Elephant, Bonobo and a host of endangered species.