DRC's New Rainforest Reserve for the Endangered Bonobo
WASHINGTON, DC, November 29, 2007 (ENS) - A vast rainforest nature reserve has been newly set aside by the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, to encourage improved protection for the endangered bonobo, a great ape species that few people even know exists.

Found only in the DRC, bonobos inhabit the heart of the Congo Basin, Africa's largest rainforest, now threatened by industrial logging.

DRC Minister of the Environment Didace Pembe Bokiaga officially declared the reserve earlier this month, saying, "This increases the total area of protected land in the DRC to 10.47 percent, bringing us closer to our goal of 15 percent."

Larger than the state of Massachusetts, the new Sankuru Nature Reserve encompasses 11,803 square miles of tropical rainforest that shelters forest elephants and other rare mammals alongside the remaining few thousand bonobos.

A young bonobo in the Congo Basin (Photo by Mark Attwood courtesy UNEP-WCMC)

From its headquarters in Washington, DC, the nonprofit Bonobo Conservation Initiative joins in the rejoicing over the new reserve.

"This is a monumental step towards saving a significant portion of the world's second largest rainforest, of critical importance to the survival not only of humankind's closest great ape relative, the bonobo, but to all life on Earth given the increasing threat of climate change," said Sally Jewell Coxe, president and co-founder of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative.

The Sankuru reserve is the southern anchor for a constellation of linked, community-based reserves being developed by Bonobo Conservation Initiative in the Bonobo Peace Forest, a project that Coxe says has enjoyed the support of DRC President Joseph Kabila since its inception in 2002.

The Bonobo Conservation Initiative, BCI, works with indigenous Congolese people through cooperative conservation and community development programs. The U.S.-based NGO has been working with the government of the DRC to establish new protected areas and to safeguard bonobos wherever they are found.

Bonobos are distinguished by their peaceful, cooperative, matriarchal society, intelligence, and sexual nature. Other than humans, bonobos are the only primates known to have sex not only for procreation, but also for pleasure and conflict resolution - and with members of either sex.

Coxe says bonobos can be "a powerful flagship both for conservation and for peace."

The Sankuru region was hit hard during the recent war in the Congo, which devastated the local people and claimed four million lives, she says, more than any war since World War II.

Now the humanitarian crisis must be addressed," says Coxe. "The people of Sankuru rely on the forest for every aspect of their livelihood. Helping them to develop new economic opportunities apart from the bushmeat trade is one of the most urgent priorities."

"We are proud that the Sankuru Reserve is being created in the framework of community participative conservation…and will be zoned to guarantee the rights of the local population," said Environment Minister Bokiaga.

Andre Tosumba, director of BCI's Congolese NGO partner, Community Action for the Primates of Kasai, or ACOPRIK, led the successful local effort to protect Sankuru.

"When I saw the extent to which people were hunting bonobos, okapi, and elephants, we began to sensitize them to realize the value of these animals," said Tosumba. "Once they came to understand, the people themselves decided to stop hunting these precious species and to create a reserve to protect their forest."

"BCI has helped ACOPRIK and the local people at every step of the way," said Tosumba. "We call on the international community to join our effort."

An okapi at the DRC's Okapi Reserve. (Photo courtesy Wildlife Direct)
Sponsored by BCI, survey teams from the Congo's Center for Research in Ecology and Forestry have found, for the first time, a population of okapi in the Sankuru Reserve.

The short necked forest giraffes are found only in the DRC but were not previously found outside of their known range far to the northeast.

Sankuru reserve is frequented by elephants, which have been hunted out in many other areas of the Congo forest.

Besides the bonobo, at least 10 species of primates are found in Sankuru, including the rare owl faced monkey and blue monkey.

"The wildlife is under intense pressure from organized hunting for the commercial bushmeat trade," BCI warns.

The report from the Congolese Institute for Conservation of Nature, ICCN, on its recent expedition to the area states that "the ecocide must be stopped" and recommends immediate action to protect this invaluable ecosystem and watershed.

A public agency, the ICCN manages seven DRC national parks and some 30 hunting and wildlife reserves - of which 14 are operational. Five of the protected areas have been raised to the status of World Heritage sites because of the wealth of their biodiversity.

Initial support for this project has been provided by the Great Ape Conservation Fund, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in collaboration with USAID's Central African Regional Program for the Environment.

"This is a huge victory for bonobo and rainforest conservation," Coxe said. "However our work has just begun. Now we need investment to successfully manage the reserve. And, other areas need to be protected to ensure the long-term survival of the bonobo and the integrity of the Congo rainforest."

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