The Great Ape Habitat Connectivity Project develops and documents 3,000 sq Km of forest connecting the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and the Itombwe Nature Reserve, constituting the Kahuzi Biega – Itombwe Corridor.
This project is developing a habitat corridor for the eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) and eastern chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) between protected areas in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to promote gene flow and reduce deforestation.
The eastern lowland gorilla, also know as Grauer’s gorilla, is the largest of the great apes and is endemic to the eastern provinces of DRC. Eastern lowland gorillas have undergone a drastic population decline of 77% between 1996-2016. This major decrease in population is a result of hunting, habitat loss, and the spread of human diseases, which is largely attributable to civil war and conflict, mining, logging, and the illicit bushmeat and pet trades. It is estimated that only 4000 eastern lowland gorillas remain in the wild today.
The Kahuzi Biega – Itombwe Corridor landscape is part of a much larger area that expands north to include Maiko National Park and in its entirety is known as the Maiko-Tayna-Kahuzi Biega-Itombwe (MTKB) Landscape.
The MTKB is a vast landscape estimated to be 10.6 million hectares (roughly the size of the state of Virginia) that transitions between the lowlands of the Congo Basin and the highlands of the Albertine Rift, two very important areas for global biodiversity. The MTKB Landscape is noted for its globally significant biodiversity, containing more than 77 IUCN Red List-threatened species of fauna and flora, and high numbers of endemic and restricted-range species.
The MTKB landscape is also globally significant for containing some of the largest remaining blocks of intact forest in the Congo Basin. These forests at the headwaters of the Congo River not only regulate local climate and soil protection, but are critical to maintaining global ecological services – storing carbon that counteracts global climate change and playing a role in regulating one of the world’s largest river basins. This is also associated with local communities and indigenous livelihoods protection.
The Great Ape Habitat Connectivity Project (Kahuzi Biega – Itombwe Corridor) started in 2010 and has mapped 3,000 sq Km in which 2,777 sq Km of community forestlands, 471 sq Km for reforestation (including natural regeneration) and 941 sq Km (two zones, bordering Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Itombwe Nature Reserve, respectively) on the corridor with high gorilla population abundance.
Current activities include the mapping of forests and great ape habitats on the corridor (inventories on the entire corridor), reparation of ecosystem services (documentation and analysis), improvement of the living conditions and livelihoods of local and indigenous communities, forest restoration (including natural regeneration), and creation and reinforcement of communities’ means of resilience and adaptation to climate change (including a REDD project in formation).
Working with local communities and getting buy-in from community leaders is essential for the success of this project. Together we are working with communities to improve livelihoods and raise awareness about environmental issues. Livelihood activities focus on providing to local and surrounding populations, resources which they would have searched in protected areas and help regulate natural resources exploitation on the corridor.
The project has planted 149,227 trees around Kahuzi-Biega National in 2017, benefiting 2,407 households in 13 villages; and 70,802 trees at Itombwe Nature Reserve (in Burhinyi) benefiting 596 households in 16 villages. The tree planting project provides wood sources to communities which annual growth in 4% and for which 98.6% of fuel comes from wood, with the aim of lowing human pressure on intact and natural forests inhabited by great apes and other taxa.
Project activities rely heavily on working with community leaders to influence forest governance and management.
Through working with local communities there have been direct and indirect impacts on the gorilla populations within the corridor area. In Burhinyi Community Forest, near the Itombwe Nature Reserve, we have worked with the local chief to ban all hunting of great apes. Though it is already illegal, the local chief’s instructions often carry more weight than the law and has resulted in a massive decrease in illegal hunting of great apes in the area. This has had very positive impacts on local gorilla and chimpanzee populations. By working closely with surrounding communities at Itombwe NR to improve their livelihoods and raising awareness on the Grauer’s gorilla decline, local populations have engaged in conservation initiatives at the Reserve.
This project is a massive undertaking and we still have much more work to do. Through community engagement, collaborative partnerships, and lots of hard work there have already been signs that the project is having positive impacts on the communities and wildlife in the area. Through establishing this community forest corridor, people, wildlife, and the environment will benefit in a more long-term, sustainable way.