Ituri Forest, Congo (DRC)

Ituri Forest, Congo (DRC) Photo
Dennis DeMello ©WCS

The dense trees, vines, and fallen logs in the vast Ituri Forest provide habitat for the shy, endangered okapi, forest elephant, owl-faced monkey, antelopes, weavers, and a great variety of butterflies and insects. This landscape covers an area of more than 24,000 square miles in northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire) in central Africa. It is also home to farming groups and the Mbuti and Efe pygmies, hunter-gatherers characterized by their short stature (below 5 feet, on average). According to recent archeological evidence, the Mbuti and Efe have lived in the Ituri Forest for at least 40,000 years.

Fast Facts

  • The Ituri Forest landscape is one of Central Africa’s most biologically diverse regions, particularly rich in birds and mammals.
  • The forest supports the largest remaining population of Congo’s endemic rainforest giraffe, the okapi, as well as large populations of elephant, 17 species of primates, 2 species of forest pigs, 10 species of forest antelope, and the forest buffalo. 
  • More than 300 species of birds and 500 species of butterflies have been identified in the landscape. 
  • A single 100-acre block of forest in the Ituri forest was found to contain 720 species of trees and liana vines. Many valuable timber tree species, such African mahogany and Iroko, grow in the region.

Challenges

The main threats to the okapi and other wildlife in this region are slash and burn agriculture, commercial hunting for bushmeat markets, gold mining and poor land use planning. The landscape is adjacent to some of the most densely populated and conflict prone regions of Central Africa, and has only recently begun to recover from years of conflict. An estimated 300,000 people already occupy the landscape and its immediate periphery, but the demographic and economic frontier is rapidly approaching from the east and the south. The local people traditionally respect the forest and its wildlife, but unfortunately new immigrants do not feel the same connection to the forest and its resources. Thus with the immigrants will come deforestation and loss of biodiversity due to agriculture, artisanal logging and mining, and commercial bushmeat and ivory hunting.

Lack of funding due to the poor political and economic conditions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo also continues to be problematic, increasing people’s dependence on natural resources, including bushmeat.

WCS Responds

Nearly one-fifth of Ituri Forest is protected as the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a World Heritage Site that WCS helped to establish in 1992, with the mutual goal of ensuring conservation of its rich biodiversity while alleviating human poverty. The reserve has been divided into conservation, hunting, and agriculture areas. Rules and policies that govern access to those areas have been agreed upon and shared with all stakeholders.

But the reserve will provide long term protection to its natural resources only if its surrounding areas are also well protected. Thus, WCS, the DRC government, and local communities are currently working on a land-use plan that includes the reserve, community-based natural resources zones, and extractive zones within the landscape. We are determining how local households in agricultural and community forestry zones use the reserve and evaluating the intensity of their artisanal logging activities.

In support of the land-use planning process, WCS conservationists continue to survey elephants, apes, and human impact; work with local communities to restore respect for protected areas and to ensure their protection; and confer with the Congolese government to find ways to preserve the country’s wildlife and wild lands, while alleviating human poverty.

Forest dynamics have been monitored for approximately 15 years in the Ituri-Epulu-Aru Landscape, providing data on tree growth and mortality, which demonstrate changes in forest carbon stocks. WCS and its partners are collecting information to establish baselines for a REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) pilot project and are monitoring forest carbon dynamics in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Our researchers are also working to understand the effects of climate change on more than 60 species of trees in the Ituri Forest, and promoting agroforestry and conservation agriculture in the landscape.

From the Newsroom

Senseless Killings in a Congolese Wildlife ReserveJune 29, 2012

Bandits murdered 7 people and 14 okapis when they attacked the village of Epulu and Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Although okapis share physical similarities to zebras, they are more closely related to giraffes.

Forest Elephants Are Running Out of SpaceAugust 17, 2011

In the rainforests of Central Africa, hunters are finding their way into once inaccessible terrain, spelling disaster for forest elephants.

A Chance for a ChimpJune 22, 2010

WCS and IUCN launch an international, decade-long action plan to protect eastern chimpanzees by safeguarding 16 crucial areas where their populations number around 48,000 individuals.

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