Central Africa unites in creating gigantic new park

Three Central African nations have teamed up to protect a vast tract of rainforest in the heart of the world’s second largest equatorial ecosystem.

On 8 December, Cameroon, the Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic agreed to create the Sangha Park, the first transborder protected area in Central Africa, to comprise of some 11 square miles (28,000 sq km), the size of Belgium. The nations agreed to jointly manage the area known for its unique biodiversity in the heart of the Congo Basin to protect it more effectively against poaching and illegal logging. The huge park will link the protected zones of Lobeke National Park in Cameroon, the Dzanga-Sangha in the Central African Republic, the Nouabale-Ndoki Park in the Republic of Congo and the production forests and hunting zones surrounding them. The three countries are now expected to harmonise their forestry laws and implement a common management system on anti-poaching measures, ecological monitoring and logging.

The world’s largest environmental organisation, WWF, applauded the decision, saying that these forests are under severe threat, with the destruction of 15,000 square miles (39,000 sq km) of African rainforest annually due to increasing settlement, illegal logging, poaching and conversion of forest land to other uses. “This is an extremely positive development,” said Dr. Chris Elliott, WWF’s Forests for Life Campaign Director. “It not only represents the first concrete example of sub-regional collaboration on the protection and sustainable management of forests, but is also the fruition of more than 15 years work on WWF’s part. A more coherent approach towards logging and anti-poaching will go a long way to guaranteeing the future of these important forests and the wildlife that live within them.

The meeting on conserving the forests of the Congo Basin and managing them sustainably in a package entitled the Yaoundé Declaration also included first and environment ministers from the neighbouring countries of Chad, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. All six nations agreed to protect a minimum 10% of their forests, to create a trust fund to implement conservation programmes and a co-ordination and monitoring body to be based in Yaoundé, Cameroon. Another ministerial meeting in March 2001 has been scheduled to implement decisions taken this week.

“This is part of a biodiversity blueprint that WWF has also been pushing for,” said Elliott. “Now that the Democratic Republic of Congo has declared its adherence to the principles of the Yaoundé Declaration, we should see a substantial area of rainforests here come under protection.” Up to 50% of the rainforests in the Congo Basin lie in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is currently racked by civil war, worsening the problem of logging, populating and burning the forests, as well as causing animals such as forest elephants, chimpanzees and gorillas, to be hunted for meat. Many other jungle inhabitants remain threatened and even undiscovered. Scientists believe these forests could also hold the key to future medical advances in the treatment of human ailments. The chimpanzee, for example, which was recently disclosed as the potential source of the HIV virus in humans and vital to medical research, is severely endangered because of logging and poaching.

In a separate move, the government of Cameroon has announced the formation of a separate protected area, covering 4,725 square miles (12,000 sq. km), encompassing two reserves in the country’s southeastern forests with a corridor linking them. The government recently withdrew logging concessions in the area between the Boumba-Bek and Nki parks.

WWF, which has lobbied for the area’s protection since 1992, has applauded the decision. It says that it accomplished the difficult task of agreeing boundary demarcation with local communities and getting them to respect it. Local people will be involved in the conservation of the area and with large populations of animals such as elephants, chimpanzees and gorillas, there are hopes for an eco-tourism industry. The reserves are the only two unlogged areas in Cameroon’s southeast, says WWF.

The Republic of Congo, or Congo-Brazzaville, as it is sometimes known to distinguish it from the former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, announced a further important conservation plan on 14 December, the rainforest NGO, Conservation International, said. Odzala National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a unique refuge for the world’s largest concentration of lowland gorillas, has been quadrupled in size by the Congolese Forestry Ministry to some 5,000 square miles (13,000 sq km). Also located in the Congo Basin, Odzala also houses 444 of the Congo’s 626 identified bird species, one of the largest populations of forest elephants and forest buffalo, and Central Africa’s only surviving lions.

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