Africa’s tropical forests are the second green lung of the planet after the Amazons.
Forests, particularly, tropical forests are fundamental to the fight against climate change because of their carbon absorption capacity.
More than 80% of these tropical forests are located in the central zone of Africa. Known as the Congo Basin Forest. It is teeming with animal species that play an essential role in its natural regeneration. These include fruit eating species and other herbivores. More than 65% of the Congo Basin Forest is located in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Animal species such as chimpanzees and elephants are known for their ability to spread seeds, thus contributing to the natural regeneration of this forest. Bees and some birds also contribute.
“Today, we are certain that the dwarf chimpanzees (Bonobo) play an important role in the regeneration of the forest,” said Valentin Omasombo, a researcher at the NGO Mbou mon Tour.
“The fact that they move in the savannah, and leave their dung there, enables the forest to grow naturally,” he added.
However, all these species considered as ’the gardeners of the forest’ are threatened with extinction. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, the elephant population has fallen drastically. From 100,000 at the turn of the century, the country has just 8,000 elephants. Scientists warn that this trend could have irreversible consequences on the Congolese forest.
Elephants are under threat of poaching for their ivory, while chimpanzees are threatened by bushmeat hunters and the destruction of their habitat.
Antoine Tabou, the country director for African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) said that in areas like Bili Uélé and Lomako with high populations of both dwarf and light-faced chimpanzees, poaching is rampant.
“They are also poached for live specimens which are sold outside the country,” he said.
Increased threats to chimpanzees
Threats to chimpanzees in the DRC are very serious, says Adams Cassinga, coordinator of Conserv Congo, a Kinshasa-based conservation non governmental organization.
In the eastern part of the country, for example, these animals are fleeing the crackling of bullets from armed groups and taking refuge in neighboring countries. In the western part of the country, however, poaching for economic gain remains the primary threat, with a thriving bushmeat market outside the protected areas.
“Most of our chimpanzees are cooked as food, and the young are taken and sold elsewhere. The situation is really critical, and we need to take urgent action. If these measures are not taken now, in ten years, there will be no more chimpanzees in the DRC,” he said.
Interpol recently reported that nearly 32 live monkey specimens, including chimpanzees, were seized in Zambia. These animals, which were fraudulently removed from the Democratic Republic of Congo, were expected to be smuggled into the Chinese market through South Africa.
Mr. Cassinga deplored the lack of a national conservation plan for primates in the DRC. This, he said, makes it difficult to fully understand the extent of the problem and to measure the impact of efforts being taken by the state to conserve these species
“We have four sanctuaries in the DRC which receive animals held illegally by third parties. For a country the size of all of Eastern Europe, it’s minimal. I urge the government to take this issue seriously,” he said.
According to the Director General in charge of forests, José Ilanga, chimpanzees play a major role in the plant chain. And, these species enjoy special attention from the government. “The advantage we have is that rare species like bonobos, and gorillas, live mainly in protected areas,” he said.
He also noted that the protected areas are not sufficient and that there is need for the government to expand them in line with its commitments.
“In addition to the law on conservation of nature which recommends that 15% of the national territory be transformed into a network of protected areas, we are party to the Nagoya declaration, which recommends 17%,” he said.
Community conservation as an alternative
The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the countries that today has a law on wildlife conservation. Despite the existence of this law, the DRC’s wildlife is still confronted with multiple difficulties related in particular to the weakness of the judicial system, corruption and the ineffectiveness of conservation efforts.
Several conflicts between the state and communities living in protected areas also exacerbate the plight of wildlife species. Poachers are often found in the communities and sometimes pledge allegiance to armed groups that roam the protected areas, especially in the eastern part of the country.
In the face of these persistent threats, organizations and communities are trying to implement a community based model of conservation.
Nearly 400 kilometers from Kinshasa, the NGO Mbou Mon Tour has been experimenting with a community-based conservation initiative in partnership with the Bolobo people for the past ten years.
“Everything started from a community initiative based on the prohibition of hunting the Bonobo,”said Jean-Christophe Bokika, President of the Board of Directors of Mbou Mon Tour.
In the local community, legend has it that Bonobo was a human being who, because of not having paid his debts, fled into the forest becoming wild. the communities therefore consider the bonobo as part of them, hence a community-led approach works.
“We consider them as part of our ancestors, that’s why we can keep the ban,” Jean-Christophe added.
The community conservation done by Mbou Mon Tour, is an initiative that today presents itself as a development model based on the conservation of this great ape. To help communities benefit from the conservation of this dwarf chimpanzee, the NGO has set up projects including scientific research projects that attract international researchers, and ecotourism.
With the support of partners including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), several conservation projects have been set up, creating jobs and improving the living conditions of several households in this corner of the DRC.
In view of the multifaceted threats to wildlife species in general and the chimpanzee in particular, Africa should mobilize to preserve its mega biodiversity useful for the survival of its forests and the human population.
Sectoral policies and substantial funding will have to be put in place to preserve these forests and biological diversity. Otherwise, tropical forests could disappear one day, as was the case with the Sahara desert, which according to several researchers, was once a lush tropical forest.