Founder of eastern Congo gorilla reserve wins prestigious award

10/17/05

Local chief protected great apes during years of war

October 17, 2005 (Congo/Washington, DC) – In the chaos of war, Pierre Kakule Vwirasihikya organized other local chiefs in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to protect the rich and unique wildlife of their homeland.

A love of the forests inspired them to create private protected areas to help Grauer's gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants and other species withstand traditional threats such as habitat destruction and bushmeat hunting, as well as the war's devastation.

Today, after the conflict that killed more than 3 million people, the DRC government formally recognizes much of the territory in Vwirasihikya's campaign as protected land under the control of local communities. It is a unique story of perseverance and courage in a troubled region, and for his achievement, Vwirasihikya received the 2005 Conde Nast Traveler Environmental Steward Award.

Now in its 16th year, the award and $20,000 U.S. prize goes to "an individual who has played a significant role in protecting and enhancing the environment." Past winners have been scientists, journalists, teachers, and others, including Wangari Maathai, who received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize and now is Kenya's environment minister.

Vwirasihikya was cited for creating the 220,000-acre (88,000-hectare) Tayna Gorilla Reserve, the DRC's first community-run nature reserve, and the Tayna Center for Conservation Biology (TCCB), the first DRC university devoted to conservation. Both are funded by Conservation International (CI) through its partnership with the Dian Fossey Gorilla International Fund (DFGFI).

"We knew we had to protect the land or we would lose the forest forever," said Vwirasihikya, a former game warden. "People here are very attached to the forest and animals. It was our initiative, not the government's, to preserve it instead of cutting it for farms or mining." Such locally created and operated projects show the viability of international organizations supporting community-run efforts, said Juan Carlos Bonilla, the head of CI's Central Africa program.

"Pierre and the Tayna reserve exemplify all that conservation can be," Bonilla said. "They show that Africa and the DRC are not a lost cause, despite all the problems. We are seeing people achieve results with help from the international community, not just throwing up their arms in despair."

The area is home to the eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), known as Grauer's gorilla, which was believed to be facing extinction during the war in eastern DRC from 1998 to 2003. New surveys by DFGFI and its partners have found indications of larger populations than previously recorded, showing the effectiveness of conservation efforts at Tayna and the other protected areas modeled after it.

In 2001, Vwirasihikya first approached DFGFI for support. Two years later, CI entered a partnership with DFGFI to provide funding for Tayna and the TCCB and other area projects from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) CARPE program and its own funding agency, the Global Conservation Fund.

The CI funding has helped protect more than 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) of the region, which contains roughly 97 percent of the distribution and population of the endemic Grauer's gorilla. Known as the Maiko Tayna Kahuzi-Biega Landscape, the area contains a high degree of biological richness including the chimpanzee, forest elephant, Nile crocodile, Congo peacock, Congo bay owl, okapi, and leopard.

The combined efforts of CI and DFGFI, with their Congolese partners ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservacion de la Nature) and UGADEC (Union des Associations de Conservation des Gorilles pour le Développement Communautaire à l'Est de la République Démocratique du Congo) will provide protection and scientific monitoring for fauna and flora, conservation education for local people, and capacity building for Congolese institutions.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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