Deforestation surges in Virunga National Park in the wake of violence

  • In the DRC’s Virunga National Park, rangers and wildlife are caught in the crosshairs of a brutal civil conflict.
  • Forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch detected more than 1,100 hectares (2,718 acres) of tree cover loss from May to September.
  • The recent uptick coincides with the temporary closure of the Virunga after rebel forces killed a park ranger and kidnapped two British tourists.
  • The primary driver deforestation is likely charcoal production. Illegal logging and land clearing for agriculture are also presumed to play a role.

In recent months, large chunks of lush tropical forest have been cleared from Virunga National Park, a reserve famous both for its resident mountain gorillas and for the paramilitary groups that have long spread violence throughout the region.

That’s according to new data from the forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch. From May to September, the satellite-based system detected more than 1,100 hectares (2,720 acres) of tree cover loss—representing a sharp increase from the previous four months, which saw close to none. In August alone, tree cover loss was spotted in around 430 hectares (1,060 acres) .

Data from the University of Maryland visualized on Global Forest Watch shows tree cover loss (magenta) in and around Virunga National Park (outlined in green) since January 2018. Global Forest Watch has calculated that 1,169 hecatres of forest were lost from Jan. 1 –Sept. 30.

The recent uptick coincides with the temporary closure of the Virunga in the aftermath of a tragedy. In May, a 25-year-old park ranger was murdered and two British tourists were kidnapped by rebel forces, leading park authorities to temporarily suspend tourism activity.

While devastating, the incident was far from unique in the park’s grim history. Since the Democratic Republic of Congo’s civil strife accelerated in 1994, rebel groups have been battling for power within the protected area, which hugs the county’s western border. In too many cases, rangers are caught in the crossfire; in the last 20 years, 180 of them have lost their lives working a job unlike any other in conservation.

This year has already seen near-unprecedented violence, which is likely implicated in the recent upturn of deforestation in the park. Bloodshed and forest loss go hand-in-hand, says Roy Buhendwa, a program manager at the World Wildlife Fund who oversees the organization’s work in Virunga.

He describes it as a two-part problem: “Insecurity” makes it almost impossible to monitor the dense forests for illicit harvesting of natural resources, he says. It’s simply too dangerous to walk through the jungle. Plus, rebel groups illicitly exploit the forest resources to fund their operations; the bigger the army, the more resources they must extract.

The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is a subspecies of the eastern gorilla and is found in five protected areas in DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. Image by Rhett Butler for Mongabay.

The cost of charcoal

Recent tree cover loss, which appears in several different regions of the park, is undoubtedly linked to charcoal production, Buhendwa says, especially in the northern territory of Beni. There, an armed force known as ADF-NALU is likely slashing old growth forests to produce and market carbonized wood, which they can sell for $15-25 a bundle in local cities.

There’s a staggering market for it. Lacking modern utilities, a whopping 97 percent of people living around Virunga National Park rely on charcoal for cooking fuel. And that population is growing at an astonishing rate, driving up demand. Since 1990, the city of Goma, located at the southern tip of the reserve, has swelled from 150,000 people to more than 1 million; meanwhile, the population of DRC has doubled.

The charcoal trade is likely the chief force behind recent deforestation, it’s not the only one, Buhendwa says. Armed groups are also known to traffic illegal timber along Route Kamango, a highway that links DRC to Uganda, where tree cover loss started to appear on satellite images in May. And in the more southerly territory of Luberto—where another clump of clearings was uncovered by the monitoring platform—hacking trees down to plant cassava, maize and other subsistence crops isn’t uncommon, he says.

“The main driver is charcoal, but we can say that agriculture among local populations is also part of it in the south,” he says.

Okapis, or “forest giraffes,” were unknown to the western world until the twentieth century. They are only found in the forests of the DRC. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

What it means for wildlife

Deforestation always spells bad news for animals that live in the forest.

Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park, stands out in biodiversity even among the stunning, vine-covered tropical forests of the Congo Basin. It’s one of just two places on Earth where you can find critically endangered mountain gorillas, and it’s a refuge for dozens of other threatened species like the enigmatic okapi. The park also boasts some 20,000 hippopotamuses, the largest population on the planet.

And so even amidst near-unprecedented violence, the reserve and conservation groups have remained active, doing everything in their power to prevent the destruction of this treasure trove of wildlife—and the tourism money it brings in.

Virunga now employs over 730 trained rangers,  up from 230 in 2011, who put their lives at risk to protect threatened species. And they’ve been tremendously effective so far: Since 2010, the population of mountain gorillas has swelled by 25 percent—aided, in part, by veterinary care and carefully managed tourism—to 604 individuals.

Outside the park, environmental organizations are trying to eliminate local dependency on Virunga’s natural resources. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, provides communities with seedlings of fast-growing trees, which can quickly grow into charcoal-producing plantations. The nonprofit is also training local entrepreneurs to build, market, and sell more efficient cookstoves that require only half the charcoal of a regular stove.

And so while hope may be hard to come by in a region struck with warfare and loss of life, there has been progress in recent years. Since 2007, more than 11,000 hectares of charcoal trees have been planted and over 90,000 stoves sold.

But as the recent uptick in deforestation highlights, the park and its rare inhabitants remain vulnerable.

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Editor’s Note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

Banner image: A mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, across the border from Virunga. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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