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Two New Wildlife Parks Created in Congo

John Roach
for National Geographic News
September 25, 2006
 
The Republic of Congo will set aside up to 3,800 square miles (1 million hectares) of habitat teeming with elephants, chimpanzees, hippos, crocodiles, and some of the highest densities of gorillas on Earth for two new wildlife parks.

The new protected areas will encompass a mosaic of savannas covering ancient sand dunes, riverside forests, and swamp forests.

Henri Djombo, Congo's minister of forestry economy and the environment, made the announcement at the United Nations in New York on September 18 along with officials from the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

In prepared remarks, Djombo said his country depends on forest resources for economic development but is "deeply committed to biodiversity conservation and sustainable forest management."

The first area to be created is Ougoue-Lekiti National Park in the southwestern part of the country (Congo map). The park will adjoin Gabon's Bateke National Park, which WCS helped establish in 2002.

The second area, to be officially protected next year, is called Ntokou Pikounda and lies southeast of Odzala Kokoua National Park. The area may contain some of the highest gorilla densities in the world, according to Paul Elkan, who directs WCS's Congo program.

"Extraordinary Achievement"

WCS says it is delighted with the announcement.

Society officials called the new protected areas an "extraordinary achievement" for the entire Congo Basin and an important addition to the country's protected-area network.

"WCS has a good track record in Congo," said Mike Fay, a WCS ecologist who started working with colleagues in 1997 to promote establishment of Ougoue-Lekiti National Park.

(Read an interview with Fay about his efforts to establish the park in Gabon.)

Fay lobbied for the Ntokou Pikounda area after discovering it in 2000 during his "Megatransect" trek across the wilds of central Africa. (The Megatransect project was funded jointly by WCS and the National Geographic Society, which includes National Geographic News.)

WCS's Elkan says the society will work with Congo's government to ensure the areas are protected from wildlife poachers and logging operations.

WCS and Congo's government will also include local communities in management of the protected areas and future ecotourism operations, he adds.

Trans-Boundary Protection

The trans-boundary protected area created by Ougoue-Lekiti National Park and Gabon's Bateke National Park will safeguard an estimated 2,300 square miles (600,000 hectares), WCS says.

"Without the Congo side in there, it was impossible to protect the Gabon forest" from poachers, Fay said.

The northern half of the newly protected area contains grassland savanna covering ancient sand dunes, wooded savanna patches, and fine lines of dense riverside forest. Small lakes and river valleys are found throughout the region.

The savanna landscape supports a small antelope species called Grimm's duiker, side striped jackals, and rare birds including Denham's bustard.

Elephants, forest buffalo, bush pigs, leopards, gorillas, chimpanzees, and several monkey species roam the forests, WCS says.

"On the southern part of the Congo side is the Ougue [River] area and a more or less pristine block of Chaillu forest, a type not yet represented in the protected-area network of the Republic of Congo," Elkan said.

This forest type supports Okoumé and other tropical hardwoods heavily exploited by the logging industry.

Along the river, forest elephants and other large mammals make their homes in natural forest clearings.

In the past, lions roamed the region, which is unusual for the Congo Basin. Elkan says recent surveys suggest the lions have been wiped out, though food sources are thought to be sufficient to support them.

"We hold out hope that a remnant lion population may exist, even though it looks more and more unlikely," he said.

Great Ape Haven

At Ntokou Pikounda, the second protected area, WCS and government biologists are currently conducting surveys of the booming gorilla population and will provide specific estimates, Elkan says.

Preliminary data indicate that the gorilla and chimpanzee populations do not seem to have been hit by the Ebola virus, which has impacted nearby populations.

"It's kind of like one of those hidden gems that no one knows is out there—people don't go there, it's too hard to get to," Fay said. "It's like one of those little Shangri Las."

The region is so remote that Fay encountered "naive" chimpanzees—animals that had never before seen humans—during his Megatransect journey.

"They had no fear of humans. It was not just individuals who had never seen humans. It's the whole culture of chimpanzees that has no collective knowledge of humans at all," he said.

In addition to the great apes, the swampy forests are home to forest elephants, crocodiles, hippos, and rare and threatened birds such as crowned eagles and many species of hornbills.

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