THE EXPANSIVE AND PRISTINE ODZALA-KOKOUA NATIONAL PARK LIES IN THE HEART OF THE WORLD’S SECOND LARGEST TROPICAL RAINFOREST, SECOND ONLY TO THE AMAZON.
Situated in the north-west of the Republic of Congo, this sprawling national park is home to iconic species such as western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, and forest elephant, along with a wide diversity of other unique fauna and flora. By working closely with local communities and implementing innovative solutions to curb poaching, including mobile health care units for surrounding communities and gorilla habituation programs to increase tourism, these projects are yielding impressive results for the long-term sustainability of the park.
Odzala-Kokoua National Park is managed by the Odzala Foundation – a partnership between African Parks and the Congolese government. African Parks took over the management of Odzala-Kokoua in November 2010 under the terms of the partnership agreement with the Government of the Republic of Congo.
The park’s innovative Poacher to Protector programme has resulted in a large number of arrests, convictions and has made great strides in clamping down on poaching.
Since the introduction of effective law enforcement, many forest elephant have moved back into the park area.
A gorilla habituation programme, carried out by the research and monitoring team together with pygmy trackers, is yielding positive results.
Wildlife habits have changed and animals are more relaxed and visible, particularly in the baies where rangers have carried out general habituation.
Well over 100 local people are employed by Odzala, with five percent of the commercial revenue generated by the park being allocated towards community development.
A livelihood diversification project has seen the planting of 40,000 cocoa saplings outside the park, providing an alternative revenue stream to illegal bushmeat poaching.
Community infrastructure projects have included the construction of a community centre and a nursery school.
The park has two upmarket tourist lodges, Lango and Ngaga Camps, as well as the Mboko tourist camp, all of which belong to Congo Conservation Company and bring in important tourist revenue which goes towards the management of the park.
ODZALA-KOKOUA IS ONE OF THE WORLD’S REMAINING LARGE INTACT FOREST SYSTEMS, HOME TO THOUSANDS OF FOREST ELEPHANT AND THE CRITICALLY ENDANGERED WESTERN LOWLAND GORILLA.
Odzala is one of the most botanically diverse areas in the world, with more than 4,400 plant species recorded, including distinctive groves of Senegal date palm which are dotted along the Mambili River banks. The southern part of the park is predominantly savannah-forest mosaic and forest galley ecosystem. The centre is dominated by marantaceae forest, while further north, the park is covered by mature rain forest. Numerous clearings, called ‘baies’ provide opportunities to observe wildlife more clearly than the dense vegetation of the tropical forest. The Ekoutou escarpment (80 km²) with its lichen forest, and Djoua swamp in the north-west of the park, remain some of the most remote areas in which only a few scientific expeditions have been conducted.
Odzala’s biodiversity is nothing less than exceptional, with more than 400 bird species, it has been recognised as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International. It is also home to 114 mammal species and in excess of 4,400 varieties of plants. While it is best known for its gorilla and chimpanzee populations, there are numerous other species resident in the park, including thousands of forest elephant.
Forest elephant and buffalo are found in the forests of Odzala, along with healthy populations of bongo antelope, sitatunga, bushbuck, giant forest hog and red river-hog, numerous duiker species from the large yellow-backed duiker to the tiny Bates’s pygmy antelope and many others species, too numerous to mention.
The western lowland gorilla and chimpanzee are amongst the most well-known, but other noteworthy primate species include the black and white colobus, two species of mangabey and the De Brazza’s monkey.
Odzala is the only place in the greater Tridom areas where spotted hyaena can still be found. Also home to numerous cat species, including golden cat in two different colour phases and serval in three different colour phases.
Three species of pangolin (including the giant pangolin) and aardvark are resident in Odzala.
A total of 444 avian species. Among these are the grey parrot, which occurs abundantly in roosts comprising thousands of individuals. Other notable species include the grey necked rockfowl, forest swallow, Zenker’s honeyguide, Gosling’s apali, black-eared ground thrush, grey ground thrush, eastern wattled cuckoo-shrike, Verreaux’s batis, Bates’ weaver, yellow capped weaver and Rachel’s malimbe.
More than 346 species recorded within the boundaries of the park, with an additional 301 recorded in the periphery of the park.
At least 26 butterfly species are believed to be endemic to the area and 2005 saw the discovery of a new species, Bebearia ivindoensis.
While the Tridom areas supports the largest forest elephant population in Central Africa, the species is under threat as a result of poaching pressure. Many elephant were killed before African Parks took over the management of the park, but effective law enforcement has resulted in many of the remaining individuals moving back into the park area. Gorilla numbers have also declined over the last decade due to the fatal Ebola epidemic which devastated the park since 2004. It is however hoped that with the increased security of the park, this downward trend can be reversed.
Threatened birds included the black-casqued and Bycanistes species of hornbill, both of which are considered vulnerable, as well as several raptors such as the crowned hawk eagle.
Given the density of the rain forest in which Odzala is located, it can be difficult to view gorillas outside the baie areas where they have not been habituated, as they disappear at the slightest sign of human presence. As the gorilla experience is an important element of the park’s tourism appeal, a number of sites have been identified, and the research and monitoring team, together with 14 pygmy trackers, all of which are former poachers, have selected gorillas for habitation through careful monitoring and observation of their temperament and behaviour. It is hoped to habituate at least three groups of gorillas, which will take between three and five years.
|Golden cat||Profelis aurata|
|Syncerus caffer nanus|
|Forest elephant||Loxodonta cyclotis|
|Giant forest hog||Hylochoerus meinertzhageni|
|Red river-hog||Potamochoerus porcus|
|Yellow-backed duiker||Cephalophus silvicultor|
|Bates’s pygmy antelope||Neotragus bates|
|Western lowland gorilla||Gorilla gorilla|
|Black and white colobus monkey||Colobus guereza|
|Mangabey monkey||Cercocebus agilis|
|De Brazza’s monkey||Cercopithecus neglectus|
|Giant pangolin||Manis gigantea|
THERE ARE ABOUT 10,000 PEOPLE WHO LIVE ALONG THE PERIPHERY OF THE PARK, WHO NOW HAVE A DIRECT INFLUENCE ON MANAGEMENT DECISIONS CONCERNING ODZALA AS A RESULT OF THE ODZALA-KOKOUA FOUNDATION, WHICH HAS TWO LOCAL COMMUNITY REPRESENTATIVES ON ITS BOARD.
Historically, communities had a negative perception with regard to the park, so a great deal of emphasis has been placed on ensuring that their concerns are not only heard, but addressed, and that they benefit directly from the conservation of the park and its wildlife.
Well over 100 local people are employed by Odzala, with five percent of the commercial revenue generated by the park allocated towards community development.
A consultation process was initiated with the 70 local village associations, during which communities were able to discuss their socio-economic needs. An important element of the park management is ensuring that communities are able to still make use of the park’s resources, albeit in a sustainable manner. This led to the zonation of Odzala into three eco-development zones in which agro-forestry and consumptive utilisation are allowed and facilitated.
Alternative livelihood programmes are also being investigated for the periphery of the park, including the development of cacao plantations. These projects are designed to stimulate local economic opportunity for local people and reduce the poaching pressure on the park.
WELL OVER 100 LOCAL PEOPLE ARE EMPLOYED BY ODZALA, WITH 5 PERCENT OF THE COMMERCIAL REVENUE GENERATED BY THE PARK BEING ALLOCATED TOWARDS COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT.
The lives of four communities are being transformed by the planting of 40,000 cocoa saplings outside Odzala-Kokoua National Park. The programme involves the rehabilitation of old cocoa fields and is expected to improve harvest yields, the quality of beans, and generate an alternative income to bushmeat poaching – a major conservation challenge that threatens the forests of the Congo basin. Funded by RAPAC (Réseau des Aires Protégees d’Afrique Centrale), once planted the trees are expected to begin bearing fruit in two to three years. Villagers are tending to the saplings, and have received formal in-field instruction in growing and harvesting cocoa from agricultural experts who were trained in Brazil
DESPITE THEIR VAST SIZE, TROPICAL FORESTS ARE SURPRISINGLY SENSITIVE TO DISTURBANCES WITHIN THE ECOSYSTEM, AND THE DEMISE OF KEYSTONE SPECIES, SUCH AS FOREST ELEPHANT, CAN CAUSE THE DECLINE OF MANY OTHER SPECIES.
For this reason, effective law enforcement is essential in ensuring the fragile balance is not disrupted through illegal activities such as poaching for bushmeat.
The ranger selection and training process began with the independent evaluation of the rangers already working in the park. Those that did not fit in with the selection criteria were redeployed, while the others went through additional training to bring them up to the required level. Additional rangers were recruited from the surrounding communities, and through the ‘Poacher to Protector’ programme which saw ex-poachers receive amnesty for handing in their firearms and declaring any previous illegal poaching activities. Rangers regularly receive training in new skills, as a permanent eco-guard training facility has been set up, with funding provided by the US-based Richardson Foundation.
The major threats include commercial and subsistence hunting for bushmeat, elephant poaching for ivory and the construction of roads on the periphery of the park, which exacerbates the problem of poaching as it provides easy access to previously isolated forest.
Diseases such as Ebola also threaten the great ape populations in particular.
When African Parks first took over management of Odzala, the central area of the park had not been patrolled for several years. As a result poacher camps were established in many of the baies, as the wildlife that visited these areas for minerals and salt were easy targets. This had a major effect on the behaviour of wildlife, with animals only visiting the baies in the relative safety of the night. Since then, African Parks has implemented an effective and targeted anti-poaching plan to address threats to the park.
Wildlife habits have changed completely since the introduction of effective law enforcement, particularly in the baies where rangers have carried out general habituation. Gradually animals have become used to the presence of humans without perceiving them as a threat, which is an essential part of developing the areas as potential tourism sites. In addition, patrols have resulted in a number arrests and successful prosecutions.
AFRICAN PARKS HAS IMPLEMENTED AN EFFECTIVE, MULTI-PRONGED ANTI-POACHING PLAN TO ADDRESS THREATS TO THE PARK.
Poacher to Protector Project
The Odzala eco-guard unit comprises some former poachers who applied for the park’s ground-breaking amnesty programme. Poachers who entered the amnesty programme were required to hand in their illegal weapons and provide written statements detailing their poaching crimes. They were then invited to take part in a selection and training programme for new eco-guards in the park. Not only did this result in the recruitment of a number of rangers, it also provided the park with vital intelligence and 56 illegal firearms were taken out of circulation.