STRENGTHENING PROTECTED AREA MANAGEMENT
For conservation to work, people living near protected areas need to derive benefits from safeguarding wildlife and be empowered and engaged in conservation. Through the Nouabale-Ndoki Foundation representatives of local communities, WCS, the Government and the private sector now have a place to discuss conservation issues, voice concerns, and explore opportunities. Under this fully transparentmanagement framework, business and management plans are being developed to guide annual work-planning and implementation that aligns with the long-term vision for the park and its protection.
The number of Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park staff has been increased, and infrastructure is being developed to ensure effective management that benefits both wildlife and local people. Park headquarters at Bomassa and Makao have been refurbished, with the expansion of a fully functioning garage at Bomassa to maintain the park’s fleet of vehicles and boats. An office has been established in the nearest large town, Ouesso, to facilitate logistics and the follow up of wildlife crime cases in the local court. Airstrips at Makao-Linganga and Kabo have been refurbished, allowing easy access to the entire park for surveillance flights. Best practice administrative and logistics systems are being implemented to ensure that park operations run seamlessly, and teams in the field are equipped with appropriate equipment. The size of the Ndoki anti-poaching force has been increased, and has been trained by world-class specialists, together with the Congolese Government, in a diverse range of tactics to help them to save Congo’s wildlife without risking their safety, and at the same time protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.
The management and protection measures implemented under the auspices of the Nouabale-Ndoki Foundation are paving the way for what is being referred to as ‘frontier tourism’ – travel to some of Africa’s most remote and seldom visited destinations. The forests of northern Congo are home to the continent's largest stronghold of western lowland gorillas, with more than 60% of the world’s gorillas found here, and include a number of natural forest clearings (‘bais’) that provide extraordinary gorilla viewing opportunities. The presence of excellent wildlife products based around gorilla viewing means that the park has the potential to catalyze tourism development within the region, and generate revenue through wildlife-based tourism. The Nouabale-Ndoki Foundation is partnering with a private operator to ensure that this tourism product is economically viable and is able to compete on the global ecotourism market.
PROTECT THE PARK AND ITS WILDLIFE BY IMPLEMENTING A FULL-CHAIN WILDLIFE LAW ENFORCEMENT PROGRAM
To tackle the growing threats to the area’s wildlife, the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park’s protection force has been professionalized and increased six-fold over the past five years. Anti-poaching operations have been restructured and reinforced by the addition of a Cessna 206 aircraft that carries out regular park-wide surveillance flights. Park management is mentoring and overseeing this expanded ranger force to ensure that they carry out their mission in a professional manner, know how to protect themselves from heavily armed and ruthless poachers, and respect the law and human rights.
Anticipating, detecting, and stopping illegal activities in the forest presents particular challenges. Beneath the dense leafy canopy and thick understory poachers can easily conceal themselves. To overcome this challenge, the park employs an intelligence-based approach to law enforcement, that combines information on the spatial distribution of poaching, the modus operandi of poachers and traffickers, and the location of key access points to the park, to direct and target anti-poaching patrols to where poaching is most likely.
Observation data on tracks and other poaching signs collected by patrols and analyzed by SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) is central to building this understanding. The SMART system is now fully functional throughout the landscape, and yielding comprehensive and comparable data on patrol effort, seizures, and enforcement. Another key element in getting ahead of the poachers is through receiving pre-emptive alerts from communities that poaching gangs have arrived with plans to enter the forest. Getting actionable intelligence relies on building trust with local people. Making timely use of this information requires good communications amongst field teams, and close coordination of anti-poaching activities from the Operations Centre at the Park headquarters.Receiving timely and reliable early-warning messages, combined with the rich SMART database, is beginning to turn the tide in the park’s favor.
The Wildlife Crime Unit (WCU), operating under the Nouabale-Ndoki Foundation, was established in January 2016 as an important component to the Park's intelligence-led approach to law enforcement. Founded on the four-pillars of Investigations, Operations, Judicial Support and Media/Outreach, the WCU plays a critical role in identifying and dismantling the criminal networks responsible for elephant poaching and trafficking of ivory and other wildlife products in and around the Park, ensuring higher level poachers and wildlife traffickers are brought to justice, and sending a strong deterrent signal to wildlife criminals in northern Congo.
WCU operations are facilitated through the Park’s Special Intervention Unit (SIU - an elite urban intervention team of rangers with the ability to deploy rapidly) and through provincial authorities such as the Police, Army and Gendarmerie. The legal department of the WCU ensures that successful law-enforcement operations are brought to trial and result in a conviction. Activities include case-building for prosecution, liaising with the prosecutor, courtroom monitoring, and jail visits. There is considerable work at each step of the judicial process to ensure due process and that sentences are carried out.
WORK WITH LOCAL COMMUNITIES TO IMPROVE THEIR LIVELIHOODS, PROMOTE SUSTAINABLE NATURAL RESOURCE USE IN THE PARK PERIPHERY, AND WORK TOWARDS A SITUATION WHERE PEOPLE FEEL THEY BENEFIT FROM THE PARK
Conservation of wildlife requires the active support of local people. Ensuring that families tangibly benefit from the protection of wildlife populations is key to garnering support and building a local constituency for conservation. Finding ways to improve the wellbeing and secure the cultural identity of traditional and Indigenous Peoples is a challenge everywhere. In isolated places like northern Republic of Congo, families have limited access to markets, lack social services like schools and health clinics, and have few opportunities for employment. It is not surprising that some local people hunt and sell wildlife when the price of a kilogram of antelope meat is 20 times that of the plantains they grow in their fields.
One benefit of the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, which covers four thousand square kilometers of pristine rainforest in northern Republic of Congo, is that it serves as a source area of wildlife that disperse into community hunting areas on the park periphery. They are a good source of wild meat for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, but demand for wildlife as food in provincial towns like Ouesso and Pokola is growing—placing increasing pressure on the wildlife in some community areas. If wildlife is depleted in the forests surrounding the park, traditional families will lose a vital source of nutrition and cultural identity, and hunters might be motivated to enter the Park.
To ensure that hunting remains sustainable in community areas bordering
the Park, the Nouabale-Ndoki Foundation is working with over 380 households in
Bomassa and Makao, NNNP’s two closest communities. The Nouabale-Ndoki
Foundation is focusing on a combination of strengthening community governance
and capacity to manage hunting and fishing in their lands and waters, educating
the next generation, providing families with access to health services, and
offering employment and alternative income generating opportunities to
Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities in the park periphery. These actions
are helping to improve the wellbeing of families, secure the hunting and
fishing life-ways and cultural identities of Indigenous Peoples and Local
Communities, and building a constituency for the Park and wildlife
With support from the park, local fishing associations in the park periphery now manage fishing under a fisheries charter to promote sustainable practices and off-take, including using fishing nets with larger mesh and protecting spawning sites. The charter is founded on locally-defined rules for fishing, developed collectively with traditional fishermen and local authorities. It has now been widely adopted within communities living around the park, who have fully supported its implementation within their traditional fishing grounds.
The park also has launched a pilot, community-run ecotourism project to share knowledge on income opportunities through tourism with local communities in preparation for the planned expansion of this industry in the park and its periphery. In addition, the park directly employs nearly two hundred people from Makao and Bomassa villages, injecting over 90,000 USD into the local economy each month. By taking more control over the use of their natural resources, and building their own small enterprises they can secure their own futures, creating new opportunities that better address their needs and reducing dependency on timber companies for their livelihoods. Assessments of family wellbeing using the Basic Necessities Survey method has shown that families with members that have jobs associated with the park are better off.
USING SCIENCE TO DRIVE INFORMED CONSERVATION DECISIONS FOR THE LONG-TERM PROTECTION OF THE PARK AND ITS WILDLIFE
Conservation science has always been a key tool for gathering the data and information necessary for the successful management of the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, providing valuable direction for the protection of the area from the very first surveys that identified the ecological importance of the Nouabale Forest Management Unit back in the late 1980s. A number of important ecological hot spots were identified during early surveys, various site-based studies were launched to deepen our understanding of both flagship and keystone species such as elephants, gorillas, and bongo, and to ensure that there was a permanent presence in some of the most vulnerable areas in and around the park. Three of those site-based studies - the Mbeli Bai Study, the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project and the Mondika Gorilla Project - continue to this day.
For the past decade and a half, large mammals have been monitored across the landscape every five years by foot surveys on line transects, providing population estimates for elephants, gorillas, and chimpanzees, as well as data on the presence of rarer large mammals such as bongo and buffalo. Information on poaching and other illegal activities is also collected. The park has often been a site for research and development into new advances in conservation science and technology, including aerial videography, remote cameras, and acoustic-monitoring techniques. Advances in conservation science have been strengthened by an extensive capacity-building program. Twenty Congolese researchers are currently employed by the park, while a dozen staff from NNNP have obtained master’s degrees or doctorates from Europe, the U.S., and universities across Africa over the past two decades.
The Mbeli Bai Study
The Mbeli Bai Study is the longest running field site on the western lowland gorilla, and has provided groundbreaking insights into the social organization and population dynamics of this elusive species. The bai is a natural swampy forest clearing of approximately 15 hectares, located in the southwest of the national park, and offers a unique opportunity to observe gorillas in the wild. Gorillas are extremely difficult to study in the wild, as the majority of their habitat is made up of dense forest vegetation, making it very challenging for scientists to observe their behavior. Researchers at Mbeli solved this problem by building an eight-meter high platform that provides them with a bird’s-eye view of the gorillas that visit the clearing.
Researchers first started working at the clearing in 1993, and initially focused on documenting the different gorillas that visited it. Over time, the researchers have built up a database of thousands of observations that has enabled them to publish studies on range of different topics, including gorilla demographics, ecology, and social dynamics. All of this information has provided valuable insight to conservationists working to protect the species. Mbeli Bai is also visited by other large mammals such as forest elephants, sitatunga antelope, buffaloes, black-and-white colobus monkeys, and Congo clawless and spotted-necked otters. For several species, every animal visiting the clearing is individually known to the researchers, providing life histories of up to two decades for some.
The Goualougo Triangle Ape Project
The Goualougo Triangle lies between the Ndoki and Goualougo Rivers on the southern boundary of the park, with the extensive swamps of the two rivers acting as a natural barrier against human encroachment. People rarely penetrated into the heart of this pristine forest block, and when researchers first encountered chimpanzees in the area, the animals responded with a “naïve” reaction that suggested they had never seen humans before. Instead of fleeing, however, the chimpanzees displayed a certain curiosity towards their human observers, and would descend to the lower branches of the trees to gain a better view of the new arrivals.
The chimpanzees and gorillas in the Goualougo Triangle have been the subject of a long-term study since 1999, with the site managed by David Morgan and Crickette Sanz. Work initially focused on the social structure and behavior of chimpanzees, revealing an extensive tool-using repertoire, including tool-using behaviors not previously documented elsewhere in Africa. More recently, the study has examined the long-term impact of logging on chimpanzees, in particular the impact of logging in the neighboring forests on the social structure and dynamics of chimpanzee communities in the triangle. In this way, the study has become a leader in developing a more comprehensive understanding of the impacts of FSC-certified logging on apes. This helps to avoid the negative impacts associated with logging and convince governments of the need to promote timber certification.
Mondika Gorilla Project
Research into the behavior and socio-ecology of the western lowland gorilla was initiated at the Mondika field site in 1995 by Diane Doran from Stony Brook University. In the early 2000s, a silverback called Kingo and his group was the first family group to be successfully habituated to the presence of researchers. A second group, led by a silverback called Buka, was added in 2008–10, and work is currently underway to habituate a third group. The long-term goal is to create a world-class ecotourism destination while simultaneously continuing to provide valuable data on the species.
Mondika is one of only four sites in Central Africa where western lowland gorillas have been fully habituated to the presence of humans. The study site is located in the Djeke Triangle, a 10,000-hectare forest block that lies just outside Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park. The area has never been logged and was declared a conservation set-aside by the CIB forestry concession company, which means that it will not be subject to timber extraction in the future. The zone contains an extraordinarily high density of gorillas but is also home to chimpanzees, elephants, and ten other primate species. This incredibly abundant biodiversity is expected to become the main driver for future ecotourism activities in the region.
The Elephant Listening Project
At the end of 2016, Cornell University’s Elephant Listening Project (ELP) and WCS-Congo launched a study using hidden microphones to monitor forest elephant populations and movements, pinpoint the gunshots of poachers, and record the biodiversity in the Park. Any animal or human that makes a loud noise can be detected and recorded by the acoustic devices that the team sets out and monitors in the field. Elephants are exceptionally good subjects for acoustic monitoring because they communicate using low frequency rumbles which can travel long distances across the forest and can be easily picked up by the microphones. By counting vocalizations across a grid of microphones, the project aims to estimate the number of elephants and follow their movements in response to food availability, hunting pressures, and logging activity.
To help speed the analysis of the recordings, ELP has developed sound analysis tools which can automatically identify elephant vocalizations, saving thousands of hours of manually reviewing the sound spectrograms. Using similar automatic sound analysis tools, a prototype real-time gunshot detector that can record gunshots within 10 square kilometers of forest and send the signal to an anti-poaching command center for quick response is also being trialed.