KINSHASA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO (June 23, 2016) – The Itombwe Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of Africa’s most biodiverse sites, had its boundaries formally approved today by the Provincial Governor – a critical step in establishing and ensuring the effective protection of this important site. The move follows requests by WCS and its partners to finalize the reserve’s establishment in order to conserve the Grauer’s gorilla. By DRC law, formal boundaries are needed to effectively work on the ground to protect the 2,213 square mile (5,732 square kilometer) reserve.

The Itombwe massif is one of the most biodiverse sites in Africa and to date 756 terrestrial vertebrates and 1,036 plant species have been documented. The site has only been visited a few times by scientists and it is likely many more species will be found in the future. Of these known species,108 are found only in the Albertine Rift region of Africa with several of these species found only in Itombwe, such as the Itombwe Golden Frog (Chrysobatrachus cupreonitens), the Itombwe or Prigogine’s nightjar (Caprimulgus prigoginei) and Schouteden’s swift (Schoutedenapus schoutedeni).

At least 53 globally threatened species (Critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable on the IUCN Red List) are found in Itombwe, and several more are classified as data deficient because they are so rarely seen and described.

Following WCS surveys of the massif in the mid 1990s and early 2000s, Itombwe Reserve was legally gazetted by a Ministerial decree in 2006.  However, with no clear boundaries and without any consultations with local communities living there, conflict and a lack of jurisdiction left both people and wildlife vulnerable. WCS, working with WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), ICCN (the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature), the South Kivu provincial civil society, and AfriCapacity, a local NGO supported by the Rainforest Foundation Norway, together conducted a consent-based consultation process with local communities in and around the new reserve.  This led to locally-approved boundaries.

In a meeting held today in Bukavu, in eastern DRC, the Provincial Governor of South Kivu Mr. Marcellin Cishambo Ruhoya and the Executive Director of the DRC National Parks Authority (ICCN), Mr. Cosma Wilungula, signed the formal agreement with community representatives and the NGOs who had been involved in the process present to witness the signing. 

“Itombwe is one of the most important sites for conservation in Africa and it is great news that the Government of DRC and the communities that live in the massif have finally fully established this unique protected area,” said Dr. Andrew Plumptre of WCS’s Albertine Rift Program.

Said Deo Kujirakwinja, WCS DRC Project Director: “Using a conflict-sensitive approach to conservation of Itombwe was essential in bringing on board the people who live there.”

The Itombwe Massif was one of two sites that were identified by conservationists as critical for the protection of Grauer’s gorillas.  Richard Tshombe, WCS DRC Country Director, worked closely with the government of DRC to inform them of its importance and to encourage the establishment of this reserve.

Said Tshombe: “I am very happy that my government has been willing to move quickly to formally establish this reserve since the news about Grauer’s gorilla declines in April. It is crucial to protect the Itombwe Massif for the gorillas and other unique species.”

A process of zoning of the reserve is underway, led by WCS and WWF together with local NGOs from the region such as Réseau des Associations pour la Conservation Communautaire du Massif d’Itombwe (RACCOMI) and Groupe d’Expertise et de Capacitation des Entreprises et ONG (GECEO). This is critical to define with the communities where conservation, sustainable use and human development will take place within the Reserve.

Mr. Onésiphore L.Bitomwa, ICCN warden of the Reserve stated that, “The Itombwe Reserve doesn’t only protect an exceptional biodiversity, but is also a very fertile place. ICCN-NIR congratulates His Excellency the Governor of the Province of South Kivu for legalizing the limits of the reserve and thanks all stakeholders, especially local and indigenous communities for their support and involvement in the sustainable management of its natural resources.”

Said Jean de Dieu Wasso of AfriCapacity: “The importance of engaging the people living in the Itombwe massif – who have a vested interest in protecting the forest they depend on - has been a critical component of obtaining agreement on the reserve boundaries. Participatory zoning and participatory sustainable management of the reserve is required to secure protection of the forest as well as the rights and livelihoods of indigenous peoples and local communities.”

The United States Agency for International Development (CARPE/USAID), US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, Rainforest Trust and IUCN SOS grants supported the conflict resolution work, consultations, and participatory mapping with local communities by WCS.