August 11, 2007

UNESCO mission to help save threatened gorilla population in Virunga National Park (DRC)

  • © UNESCO/Ian Redmond
  • Silverback Titus and group, mountain gorillas, Virunga National park

A mission by UNESCO and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) will leave for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on 11 August to investigate the apparently senseless slaughter of mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1979 and on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1994. These killings are a blow for the preservation of mountain gorillas and a setback for conservation efforts at the World Heritage site.

The mission, scheduled to last ten days, has been invited by the DRC authorities and the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN). Working with local authorities and partners in the field, the members of the mission will investigate the reasons for the targeting of the mountain gorillas whose population in the park is estimated at 370 (out of a total of 700 mountain gorillas worldwide). Seven gorillas have been killed in separate incidents this year alone.

On the basis of its findings, and in consultation with the Congolese authorities, the mission will propose measures for the protection of the mountain gorillas and for the improvement of the conservation of the site’s outstanding universal value.

This mission has been organized within the framework of the reinforced monitoring mechanism adopted by World Heritage Committee during its 31st session in Christchurch, New Zealand, just over a month ago. There is grave concern for the mountain gorillas as the latest killings are inexplicable: they do not correspond to traditional poaching where animals are killed for commercial purposes. Furthermore the killings have taken place despite the increased guard patrols and the presence of military forces in the area.

Following discussions with the Director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, Francesco Bandarin, William Lacey Swing, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), promised that MONUC will lend its full support to the UNESCO / IUCN mission.

The members of the mission will meet government representatives in Kinshasa. They will also collect data including testimonies from guards and administrators of the National Park as well as representatives of MONUC and of local communities. The experts will meet political and military leaders of the province and examine the state of conservation of Virunga National Park, the threats on the site and its actual management. They will also examine the economic impact of the situation on the local economy, notably in relation to tourism. The experts will brief the authorities in Kinshasa as well as partners in the field of their findings and compile a report on the situation.

Situated in the northeast region of the DRC, near the borders of Uganda and Rwanda, Virunga is the oldest national park in Africa, established in 1925. The park is very important for the in situ preservation of biological diversity.

In view of the fact that the five World Heritage sites of the DRC have had to be placed on the World Heritage in Danger List, and of the recent deterioration in Virunga, UNESCO is planning a high-level meeting in the autumn to examine ways to improve the situation. The meeting will bring together the relevant DRC authorities, UNESCO natural heritage specialists, representatives of the African Union, sub-regional organizations and the President of the IUCN.

UNESCO and observers are particularly concerned to note that political and military improvements on the ground in recent years have failed to contribute to the conservation of World Heritage properties in the DRC, properties whose integrity has been preserved during the years of the Great Lake Conflict (in the late 1990s and early 2000s) thanks to funding by Belgium, Italy and the United Nations Foundation. Virunga and the other sites in the east of the DRC are particularly vulnerable.


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