Congo National Parks
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) has the greatest extent of tropical rainforests in Africa, covering more than 100 million hectares. The forests in the eastern sector are amazingly diverse as one of the few forest areas in Africa to have survived the ice age. About 45 percent of DR Congo is covered by primary forest which provides a refuge for several large mammal species driven to extinction in other African countries. Overall, the country is known to have more than 11,000 species of plants, 450 mammals, 1,150 birds, 300 reptiles, and 200 amphibians.
During the war, fighting and the movement of millions of refugees through forest regions decimated wildlife and took a heavy toll on protected areas. Virunga National Park suffered extensive damage by armed bands of soldiers and refugees from neighboring camps, who harvested some 36 million trees from the park and hunted gorillas and other animals. Garamba National Park, near Sudan, experienced raids from Sudanese soldiers who hunted endangered wildlife using automatic weapons, while Okapi Faunal Reserve, home to the Ituri Forest and more species of monkeys (13) than anywhere else in the world, was ravaged by refugee migrations and marauding bands of militias, who looted and stole conservation equipment and killed park staff. One staff member of Okapi Faunal Reserve—Corneille Ewango of the Wildlife Conservation Society—was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2005 for his efforts to protect the reserve. Now that most of the fighting has died down, groups are assessing the damage. A 2005 survey by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund found higher-than-expected numbers of eastern lowland gorillas.
While DR Congo's protected areas have faced a number of challenges in recent years, the country has a long history of national parks including being the first country in Africa to create a national park (Virunga National Park for mountain gorillas in 1925). Already more than 8 percent of DR Congo is protected in reserves, and the government has announced it aims to expand these conservation areas to 10-15 percent of the country. Traditionally, parks in DR Congo have been well-managed compared to protected areas in surrounding countries. Before the war, parks were largely funded by fees collected from tourists, so there is hope that returning tourists—encouraged by wildlife and the reconstruction of park facilities—will boost conservation in the country. Still, tourists will not return unless they can be assured that the country is once again safe for foreigners. In the immediate future, Congo's parks will need to overcome a number of challenges including corruption, continued incursions by armed militias, weak law enforcement, and lack of funds.