How it took 20 years to save the lowland gorilla

Age of Union has teamed up with Canadian Ape Alliance on their efforts to establish a wildlife corridor in the Eastern Congo to restore and protect the population of gorillas and preserve the diversity of their environment.

In today's article, Dr. Kerry W. Bowman from the University of Toronto and his assistant Mathieu Brunette tell us more about this project that has been developed with determination for the past 20 years:

I first saw the massive challenges facing the people and environment of Eastern Congo near the turn of the millennium. The Democratic Republic of Congo was at war and the eastern region of the country was occupied by rebel forces. I flew into Bakavu, the provincial capital of South Kivu, risking both anti-aircraft fire in the air and sniper fire on the ground. Stepping off the plane the first thing I saw was the smiling face of Dominique Bikaba, a person I had never met, founder and director of Strong Roots Congo. I immediately felt much better. The region was at once spectacular and under siege. What impressed me the most was a brave contingent of park guards in worn, torn uniforms continuing to defend the Kahuzi-Biega park and in turn the eastern lowland gorilla, even though they had not been paid in over eight months.

There were waves of rebel forces moving through the region at that time, battle lines moved daily.  Although I had been working on projects in Cameroon, I knew then and there that I needed to redirect my focus to helping support both the people and the environment of this magical but turbulent region. In those early years I twice ended up at gunpoint and our plane once came under fire, yet it was nothing compared to what the people of Congo endured on a daily basis. In the years ahead the war ebbed and flowed but partnered with Strong Roots Congo we persisted. We managed to support conservation efforts through tumultuous times and except for a brief occupation by rebel forces, we kept the elementary school we are supporting open. There is a trend with many conservation initiatives to only be involved in stable regions with pre-existing infrastructure. Yet in the absence of this,  the projects of Eastern Congo have seen growing success over the last few decades building from a "bottom up" strategy with the goals of the project emerging from the people of the region and being grounded in people's realities and long-standing cultural beliefs and perspectives.

“True respect and empathy will emanate out of a genuine curiosity for the lives of other species and a better understanding of our impact on nature.” – Dax Dasilva, Age of Union: Igniting the Changemaker

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The forest of the Eastern Congo represents some of the most spectacular and biodiverse regions in the world. Situated along the Albertine Rift escarpment, the region is teeming with unique species found only at the intersection of the African Great Lakes and Congo Basin Forest. It is also the cradle to a vast range of African societies and cultures, including the indigenous Batwa people who have lived there for thousands of years. The constellation of rich volcanic soil, the nourishment of equatorial cycles of rain and humidity has led to the evolution of breathtaking species and ecosystems. Yet, the region has been under great siege; war, poverty and deforestation have taken a massive toll on the people of Eastern Congo and their environment.  

Although the Democratic Republic of Congo has a broad range of environmental and forest policies, minimal to no government surveillance is a massive obstacle to protecting Eastern Congo’s forests from the pressures of poverty-driven subsistence agriculture and fuelwood collection. Low-cost food importation and availability common to so many countries essentially does not exist in DR Congo, creating constant hunting pressure. Furthermore, a worrisome trend for Eastern Congo is rising global energy demands, especially for expanding technologies like solar power and electric cars may well depend on many of the minerals mined in the DRC. Some of this mining is illegal and tied to militias in the area.  This demand, if left unchecked, will intensify the exploitation of the ecosystem and create grave deprivation and risks for the people of the region.

Age of Union, in alliance with Strong Roots Congo and The Canadian Ape Alliance are working toward the expansion, renewal and sustainability of the Maiko-Tayna-Kahuzi-Biega (MTKB) Corridor of the eastern Congo Basin in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

What is a wildlife corridor? A wildlife corridor is a land resembling a bridge or a vegetal stripe connecting two or more protected natural wildlife areas that have been separated by human activities or structures.

A corridor is a habitat that: 
° acts as a climate shield
° connects endemic species
° increases biodiversity and gene flow
° combats the ecosystem fragmentation
° supports sustainable livelihoods of local communities

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The Maiko-Tayna-Kahuzi-Biega (MTKB) corridor provides an important conduit for both promoting habitat connectivity for endemic species and combating ecosystem fragmentation all the while supporting livelihoods of local communities. As a critically important biodiversity hotspot, preventing further landscape degradation and deforestation, as occurred in recent wars, will reduce ecosystem and species loss which greatly impaired the lives and well being of the people in the region.

Importantly, these forests of eastern Congo are home to the remaining populations of the critically endangered eastern lowland gorilla, the largest species of great apes, which have recently declined 77% as a result of habitat loss and hunting, regional conflict, deforestation and illegal resource extraction. The impacts of climate change in the region present an additional threat that may further exacerbate current risks for local ecosystems and communities. Changes in precipitation patterns have already caused localized droughts and crop loss, as well as shifts in vegetative cycles that may have important implications for local communities and endangered species such as the eastern lowland gorilla.

Eastern Lowland Gorilla
Status: CR (critically endangered)
Scientific name: gorilla beringei graueri
Height: 4 to 5 ½ feet (122 to 168cm) tall when standing on two feet
Weight: up to 440 pounds (200kg)

FACTS About Lowland Gorillas
largest species of the great apes
° endemic to the forests of the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo
° highly social and peaceful animals 
° live in family groups that typically range from 2 to 30+ individuals
° primarily eat plants and fruits, but are also known to eat insects

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The corridor, with an inclusive range of almost 3,000 km2, represents a climate shield, a means of securing biodiversity, an ability for species to move through their range and respond to climate and regional changes. This provides a mechanism for species range expansion and gene flow. Strategies to halt the dual crisis of biodiversity loss and climate change have historically been formulated separately, even though they are interdependent and risk failure when pursued in isolation. This focus and strategies for this corridor include both and are emerging and driven by the priorities of the seven communities (Chiefdoms) in the region. 

Our focus has initially been on biodiversity and land surveys then reforestation, sustainable agriculture such as agroforestry and species monitoring and protection - all with the goal of establishing environmental and food security. Long-standing cultural practices such as sacred forest regions and protection of pregnant animals have been re-established. Community goals focus on the protection of women, children and indigenous communities as well as education and mobile health care. Current activities include participatory mapping of forests and great ape habitats in the corridor, reparation of ecosystem services, improvement of living conditions and livelihoods, forest restoration and reinforcing communities’ means of resilience and adaptation to climate change. This holistic approach to ecosystem restoration, habitat connectivity, and improving community livelihoods will aim to address the confounding crises of biodiversity loss and climate change in the globally significant forests of Eastern Congo.

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Article co-written by Kerry Bowman and his assistant Matt Brunette. Photos by Matt Brunette.

Kerry Bowman PhD, is a Canadian bioethicist and environmentalist. He teaches at the University of Toronto and holds academic appointments in the Faculty of Medicine and School of the Environment.  He teaches a broad range of courses related to the bioethics of health care, emerging technologies and Global and Planetary health. Dr. Bowman has previously worked on the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)  Outlook reports 4,5 and 6.  His primary focus has been the relationship between human health and the environment.  Dr. Bowman is presently working on two major conservation projects in the Western Amazon and the Eastern Congo focusing on the intersection of human health with factors such as deforestation, biodiversity loss and emerging zoonotic diseases. Dr. Bowman has been a primary national and international commentator during the pandemic on ethical questions in pandemic management and the continued threats of emerging zoonotic diseases.

Matt Brunette has a Master’s degree in environmental science with a specialization in climate change impact assessment. He is an energy and sustainability consultant in Toronto where he helps businesses enhance their energy efficiency and save money. Matt is also the Corridor Project Coordinator at the Canadian Ape Alliance where he supports corridor project research/planning and coordinates project partnerships. Having been involved with the Canadian Ape Alliance for the past several years, he regularly visits eastern DR Congo to monitor progress and add capacity to local partners. Matt is currently conducting research on climate change impacts in the Itombwe corridor to help inform project planning and resilience strategies.