Despite a decade of civil war and rampant poaching, elephants and other large mammals are still hanging on in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Virunga National Park. In this World Heritage Site, a recent wildlife census by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) recorded an increase in several wildlife populations since the last count, in 2003. The results are largely due to the efforts of park guards who patrol the park in search of poachers, at great personal risk.
Virunga is Africa's oldest national park, established in 1925, and once boasted the highest density of large mammals in the world. Close to 4,300 elephants lived there in the 1960s. But the numbers of elephants, hippos, and buffalos declined dramatically since then. Today, ICCN and its partners have made great strides in protecting wildlife, helping to preserve Virunga's status as the most species-rich park in Africa.
As per the census, funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, elephants have increased to 340 from 265 in 2003. Buffalo number approximately 3,800, up from 2,300 three years ago. And the 13,000 Uganda kob (a type of antelope) are almost as numerous as they were in the 1960s.
Efforts to curb poaching have come with a high cost. More than 100 Virunga Park guards have been killed on the job since 1996. Park guards receive only $1 as a monthly salary from the government, eventhough this amount was recently increased to $30 per month with funds from UNESCO. In the near future, additional support will come from the European Union through the Zoological Society of London.
Political unrest during the past decade kept visitors away from this major tourist destination. In Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, the tourism business has generated millions of dollars, not only for the parks but also for local communities.
"It is clear that Congo needs to invest in the future of this park if they are to realize any of the benefits of tourism in the future," said WCS researcher Dr. Andrew Plumptre. "It is also clear that park guards will need continued support if the park is to show an increase in the large mammal populations in the future".
Posted by: Kelly Source