The largest landscape in the Albertine Rift the Maiko-Itombwe landscape stretches from the Maiko National Park to the Itombwe Reserve in the south encompassing the Kahuzi Biega National park and Tayna Community Reserve. The whole landscape occurs in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and it contains more species endemic to the Albertine Rift than any other landscape. The Kahuzi Biega National park is a World Heritage Site and the landscape as a whole conserves most of the World Population of the Grauer’s gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri).
About 41% of the natural habitat in this landscape is protected in some way with a lot of the landscape in between these three protected areas still containing natural forest. There are several proposed community managed protected areas between Maiko and Kahuzi Biega National Parks which still remain to be gazetted but many have some form of local support. The Itombwe Reserve has been officially gazetted but its boundaries remain to be fully defined. Species of conservation concern include Grauer’s gorilla, Owl-faced monkey, chimpanzee, elephant, bongo, yellow-backed duiker, yellow-crested helmet shrike, Itombwe nightjar, Congo Bay-owl, Prigogine’s greenbul, Rockerfeller’s sunbird, Itombwe Xenopus, Itombwe golden frog, and Itombwe puddle frog amongst others. Several species have only been observed in the Itombwe massif making this site one of the most important for endemic species in the Albertine Rift and one of the most important sites for conservation of species in Africa.
The total number of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and plant species recorded from this landscape to date number 3,205, of which 216 species are endemic to the Albertine Rift and 77 species are threatened (CR, EN, VU) under the IUCN Redlist (2010).
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The on-going civil war in DRC has hampered conservation efforts in this landscape. Armed rebel groups have chosen to hide out in all of the protected areas in the landscape and regularly terrorize villages in and around the protected areas. In response to the insecurity people have also fled other parts of the region and settled in places such as the Itombwe Massif to avoid the insecurity that exists elsewhere. The break down in law and order has also led to many people entering protected areas to search for minerals such as gold and columbo-tantalite (coltan) and has led to the creation of villages.
Areas of the Kahuzi Biega National Park have been invaded for agricultural land, particularly the corridor region connecting the highland sector of the park to the lowland sector. The influx of people into the protected areas and the presence of armed groups has led to widespread poaching of large mammals for bushmeat and as a result numbers have declined precipitously since fighting began in 1996. More recently large mining companies have been taking up mineral exploration concessions in the landscape, notably BANRO which has a concession between Kahuzi Biega National park and the Itombwe Massif, including parts of the proposed Itombwe Reserve.
WCS has been active in the region since the early 1990s where we led the first survey of the Grauers gorilla and estimated about 17,500 individuals in the whole landscape. Since then we have been supporting management of the Kahuzi Biega National Park , providing uniforms, field gear, rehabilitating patrol posts and helping management expand its sphere of operations as the security has slowly improved. We also led surveys to the Itombwe massif and Maiko National park in the late 1980s and early 1990s which showed their importance for conservation.
Since the creation of the Albertine Rift Program WCS has been leading several surveys to Itombwe and Kahuzi Biega to establish the current status of wildlife in these areas, following the civil war, as well as undertake surveys of Grauer’s gorilla, chimpanzees and elephants in particular. Surveys show that the number of gorillas in Kahuzi Biega National park are only about 20% of the early 1990s numbers although we haven’t been able to survey all of the areas that were surveyed at this time. Chimpanzee numbers have also declined drastically with about 30-40% of the initial estimates still remaining and elephants have virtually become extinct in the park. In the Itombwe Massif large mammal numbers are also very low but we have been able to extend the range of Grauer’s gorilla to an area that had not been explored previously. In undertaking these surveys we have expanded ICCN’s ability to patrol and manage the park, often entering areas previously considered unsafe, and we have helped ICCN establish a new patrol post in the west of the park which has not existed since the early 1990s.
WCS worked with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) to pilot a conflict resolution approach around the Kahuzi Biega National Park to improve relations between the local community and ICCN, the parks authority and to build the capacity of ICCN staff to implement a conflict sensitive approach to conservation. There was initial conflict over the creation of the Itombwe Reserve as it was established with no consultation with local communities and conflict resolution was needed to involve the communities in the reserve planning. An agreement was reached to zone the proposed reserve with the local communities, creating core protected, multiple use and development zones. WCS has been working with ICCN, WWF, Rainforest Foundation, AfriCapacity and the local communities to develop this zoning plan which is almost completed. We have also been undertaking biodiversity surveys in the Itombwe Massif to better define where core conservation areas should be located. The creation of development zones will identify areas where development NGOs can help improve the infrastructure and livelihoods of the people in the massif. At present most people are living in small hamlets of a few houses and as a result cannot easily be helped. The aim is to create a few centres where schools and clinics can be supported as well as access improved so that people will voluntarily shift to these centres and their health and education improved.