Six New Species Discovered in Remote Congo Forest

NEW YORK, New York, August 8, 2007 (ENS) - A new species of bat, a rodent species, two shrews, and two frogs have been discovered in a remote corner of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The area has been unexplored since 1960 because civil unrest has made it too dangerous, a wildlife conservation organization said Tuesday.

The fact that this area of Africa's Albertine Rift has been off-limits to outsiders could be viewed as a blessing, said the Wildlife Conservation Society, WCS, based at New York's Bronx Zoo.

"For the planetís ever shrinking wilderness, a combination of political instability and geographic isolation could be seen as a blessing," the WCS said. "In the few remaining places where human influence is light, nature can prosper, and even multiply."

A two month expedition between January and March 2007 to the Misotshi-Kabogo Forest and nearby Marunga Massif led by WCS scientists, made the discoveries.

"If we can find six new species in such a short period, it makes you wonder what else is out there," said researcher Dr. Andrew Plumptre, director of the WCS Albertine Rift Program.

The forest survey included participants from WCS, the Field Museum in Chicago, the National Centre of Research and Science in Lwiro, DRC, and the World Wildlife Fund.

In spite of the conflict and related degradation in the area, about 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) have remained intact, from the shores of Lake Tanganyika to elevations of 2,725 meters (8,940 feet) above sea level, Plumptre said.

The Congo forest survey area at the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. (Photo by Andrew Plumptre courtesy WCS)
The survey team found a high level of biodiversity in the gallery forests and woodlands, including chimpanzees, bongos, buffalo, elephants, leopards, and several types of monkeys, including a subspecies of colobus monkey found only there.

The researchers also recorded a high diversity of birds, reptiles, and amphibians, as well as plants that may be new to science.

But due to poaching, few large mammals were seen.

Currently, human impacts on the region are low, with minor gold mining being the most substantial threat.

Survey members met with the leaders of local villages and said that most of them support turning the region into a protected area.

"The forest has been isolated from much of the Congo Forest block for at least 10,000 years, and as a result, contains some interesting new species," said WCS researcher Deo Kujirakwinja, one of the survey participants.

"There is a real need to protect this forest and carry out more research in the area," said Kujirakwinja.

Stretching from the northern end of Lake Albert to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika and extending through five countries, the Albertine Rift is a reservoir of biodiversity.

This series of high mountain chains separates the Guineo-Congolian rainforest of Central Africa from the forest-savanna mosaic habitats of East Africa.

It takes in the ice fields atop the Rwenzori mountains at 5,000 metres (16,000 feet), active volcanoes, hotsprings, bamboo, alpine vegetation, montane forest, savanna and lowland forests at 600 metres (1,800 feet).

In a 2003 study, Plumptre showed that the region is inhabited by more than half of the bird species of continental Africa and nearly 40 percent of Africa's mammals, including the world famous mountain gorillas, now threatened by poaching.

The Albertine Rift has been identified as an Endemic Bird Area by Birdlife International, an Ecoregion by the World Wildlife Fund, and a Biodiversity Hotspot by Conservation International.

The Wildlife Conservation Society has been working in this region since the 1950s, supporting the conservation and establishment of national parks.

James Deutsch, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Africa Program, said of the area where the six new species were found, "Since few people live there, it would be relatively easy to create a park while supporting the livelihoods of people who live in the landscape."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.