The Situation in Maiko National Park
Gorilla Journal - December 2000
Maiko National Park was created November 1970 to protect the critical populations of Grauers gorilla, chimpanzee, okapi, bongo, forest elephant and Congo peacock sheltered within its boundaries. Unlike Kahuzi-Biega and Virunga, Maiko is not a World Heritage listed site and, therefore, does not benefit from similar international attention and support.
Based on forest reconnaissance, John Hart and Claude Sikubwabo (1994) consider Maiko may be the richest forest park in the Democratic Republic of Congo in terms of biodiversity. As a result of their 1989 to 1992 survey, they identified two distinct populations of Grauers gorilla in Maiko National Park. In 1996 John Hart and Jefferson Hall estimated those populations to be 826 (range 4441090) and 33 (range 1845) in the north and south respectively, with the northern population remaining relatively stable and offering the best hope for conservation. However, before the war there was already some human occupation in Maiko and elephant poachers worked from temporary camps inside the park. Small scale commercial ivory and live animal (including infant gorillas) trade had already established routes through Butembo, Kisangani, Lubutu, Bafwasende and Walikale. The vast surface area of the park and inadequate infrastructure made surveillance, control and protection very difficult.
The current conflict erupted in June 1998. Two years later, with war still ravaging the terrain, Conservateur Masasu (Maiko north) described the situation (June 2000) from safe haven at Epulu. He reported that the Maiko staff salaries have not been paid for the past three years. The staff feel seriously ignored and unappreciated in comparison to the World Heritage Site parks. He is forced to reside in the village of Butembo (nearly 100 km from the park) because he is no longer able to pay rent for his house in Manguredjipa. This indicates that there is no "protective" presence within the park territory, the only effective deterrent against illegal activity.
He further reported that the critical wildlife of Maiko National Park are facing complete disaster as a result of the current crisis. For example he cited events in February 1999 when an adult male gorilla was killed and relates that soldiers based in Manguredjipa kill at least 2 elephants per week to sell the meat.
The primary factors influencing the poaching and exploitation of minerals are the rebellion and the presence of humans who suffer the resulting miseries of war and economic deprivation. Mineral prospectors and the process of digging for gold (a lucrative clandestine career) impact the water courses and shorelines of the rivers and scarring the landscape. Rudimentary mechanical traps, nets, snares, capture devices, etc. are employed to hunt bushmeat and threaten the lives and the well-being of gorillas. A single trapper may maintain as many as 500 traps.
Due to the armed conflict and inability of park personnel to staff their posts, there is little direct news from Maiko. However, the Okapi Faunal Reserve (OFR) lies just to the north of Maiko and the Epulu station (OFR) offers a relative perspective. John and Terese Hart generously provide information from Epulu. They write that the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo remains completely unstable, and in August 2000 two new "rebel" movements emerged, including an offshoot group based in Bafwasende. The Bafwasende group include in their territorial claim the occupation of half of northern Maiko.
We can reasonably assume that the situation at OFR is representative of northern Maiko. In personal communications, the Harts relate that they are having to fight a continuous battle against incursion, illicit mining, elephant poaching, military deserters turned bandits/poachers, etc. Most of these "elements" have some complicity with local people, local authorities and the occupying governments. All are involved in chaotic extractive activities, including bushmeat, but mainly driven by the search for minerals (gold, colombo-tantalite, diamonds). The Harts do not yet see an end to instability in the region. Meeting with Terese Hart, Conservateur Masasu reported similar incursions into Maiko north, but with the presence of more dangerous armed rebel and military deserters as well.
A Médecins sans Frontières volunteer from Kisangani who had been in the Lubutu and Oso region (Maiko south) in the recent past did not even know of the existence of the park, but his description to John Hart of the meat trade in the region was very worrying.
The Harts maintain that despite these depredations, much of the value remains in the region (including Ituri and Maiko) and the capacity for renewal is still there as there is no serious loss of forest cover or incursion by logging from timber companies, though these remain ultimate risks. The Harts insist that there is still much worth saving and fighting for. They identify success in OFR as continuous vigilance on the ground and support for whatever interventions can be achieved. Sadly, Maiko lacks such a constituency.
However, Conservateur Masasu asks us to pursue peace, sensitization and education of the human population living close to the park, formation of personnel to control and organize ecological activities at the local level, material (equipment) and financial support for the staff and project assistance for the park.
The organisation of international support is absolutely necessary and indispensable to save the treasures of the Maiko National Park. It is my hope that this article will introduce Maiko to the broader public, encourage support and potentially peak the interest of an NGO to adopt Maiko.
Hart, J.A. and Sikubwabo, C. 1994. Exploration of the Maiko National Park of Zaire 1989-1992: History, environment and the distribution and status of large mammals. Wildlife Conservation Society, New York.
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