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Published:November 8th, 2013 11:34 EST

UN Protects Great Apes In Congo

By SOP newswire3

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where the United Nations has been supporting efforts to end armed violence, protect civilians and spur economic investment and political stability, the Organization is also fighting an environmental battle to save great apes, the region`s iconic local totem and a key link in its rich biodiversity.

In years past, the fear was always that armed conflict would damage great apes and wipe out wildlife, " said Douglas Cress, Programme Coordinator at the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), led by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Mr. Cress stressed the mixed blessing of the DRC`s rich endowment of resources. In terms of natural resources, it is one of the most potentially lucrative regions in all of Africa, " he told the UN News Centre from Nairobi, Kenya, where he is based. DRC has rich reserves of timber, gold, tantalum " used in cell phones and computers, and now potentially also oil and other resources.

In terms of natural resources, it is one of the most potentially lucrative regions in all of Africa.

However, the fight for possession of these resources, as well as land and political power, is a major cause of conflict with rebels such as, most recently, the March 23rd Movement (M23) , the Lord`s Resistance Army (LRA) and other armed groups that have emerged from the area or entered from neighbouring countries.

That conflict, in turn, endangers the natural environment. All natural resources suffer tremendously during conflict. But it`s not always a certainty that your wildlife would be exploited to death, often it`s just exploited, " Mr. Cress added.

It is to stave off extreme degradation of the DRC`s precious resources " so important for the future of the country and for the Earth " that the UN and its partners are working with international law enforcement, Governments and local communities to save magnificent wildlife and their habitat.

The forests of the DRC represent half of the total area of tropical rainforest in Africa, providing shelter for great apes, such as the mountain gorilla and the bonobo, as well as the okapi and elephant, among other mammals and countless species of magnificent birds and reptiles.

You fly over the area and it`s just green for three hours, " Mr. Cress said.

The rich biodiversity led to five natural sites in the country " Garamba, Kahuzi-Biega, Okapi, Salonga, and Virunga " being designated between 1979 and 1996 to the UNESCO World Heritage List, and since then, with nearly all species of animals declining in the DRC, to the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The dangers come from traditional conservation threats " deforestation, mining and bush-meat hunting, but are also fuelled by armed conflict, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless, and forcing them to survive in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and on the scarce natural resources, along with corruption and the lack of rule of law resulting from the ongoing conflict.

Monetizing great apes

The Virunga Mountains and the gorillas that migrate through them " among the great apes the UN-partnership is striving to save "fall geographically in the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda.

The countries, each of which has had its share of violent turmoil, have worked out a tripartite agreement to share the revenues from the tourists eager to explore the primate habitat.

The DRC has wanted to imitate the multi-million ecotourism industry developed in Rwanda and to a lesser extent in Uganda, but its instability is a hindrance. There are reports of rebels acting like forest rangers and taking tourists into the mountains, but recurrent fighting makes the area inaccessible to most would-be visitors.

That eastern DR Congo strip that passes through Goma that everyone`s been fighting over is so tricky because of the Virunga Mountains right there, " he noted, referring to intense struggle between the M23 and the national forces known by their French acronym, FARDC, on the periphery of what is Africa`s oldest park. That`s the stronghold of mountain gorillas and yet it`s the prime territory that everyone wants a piece of. "

In addition to instability which cuts off access for tourists, it also prevents rangers and researchers from tracking families of the gorillas to check on their health and safety.

ape The first time I saw a gorilla was in 1986 in the DRC, then Zaire. There`s nothing like it, just takes your breath away, " Mr. Cress recalled: The grace of something so powerful allowing you into its world, even if just for an hour "it`s spellbinding. "

Photo Credit: Wikipedia