It was with great excitement that the first groups of local men and women trekked into Kahuzi-Biega National Park in search of the Eastern Lowland Gorillas last week as a part of a new joint education and conservation initiative between Wild Frontiers and the Pole Pole Foundation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Although neighbours for more than four decades, the majority of people from the communities around the national park have never seen the animals they are learning to protect.
With the near £8000 proceeds from our major annual fundraiser ‘An Evening of Adventure’ back in February we aim to give at least 200 local people the chance to visit the gorillas and help raise awareness of the importance of protecting these great apes and the national park.
The project is now well underway and already having an impact.
Led by Pole Pole Foundation founder and leading gorilla conservationist, John Kahekwa, the first group of eight men from Ikambi village, which borders the national park, were chosen to highlight and educate them on the negative effects of hunting for bush meat within the national park.
Before setting off, they were given a briefing about the park, its vegetation, the importance of the park to the local community and to the planet, outlining the types of conflict between the work of the national park and the communities that surround it.
They were also shown the skulls of wildlife that had been massacred in the park.
With this in mind, accompanied by trekkers and park guides, John felt it would benefit the education of the group to trek to see lone silverback Mugaruka. The now 31-year-old gorilla lost his right hand when, as a three-year-old, he was caught in a stretched snare.
John explained that one of the key issues is that no buffer zone was created between the villages and the park when it was established in 1970, and even as they trekked they passed potatoes, beans, soybeans and maize crops that belonged to some of the villagers in the group.
After only 45 minutes trekking they came across the last single nest constructed by Mugaruka and his fresh droppings. They observed the seeds in the droppings, which John explained would not regenerate without being consumed by gorillas, chimps and elephants.
‘Hearing our soft noises, Mugaruka made a sound to indicate he was close to us’, John reported back.
‘With a quick reminder of the morning’s lesson on behaviour around the gorilla, there he was calmly holding leaves and shrubs with his left hand’.
When the right arm was then seen, John said the group were shocked.
‘Do you now see what happened when a member of the community placed a snare to catch antelope for bush meat?’
Together they pledged to make positive changes to protect the gorillas and the national park.
Eight women from the same village, some of whom had been arrested in the past for illegally gathering wood and vegetation, were also chosen to undertake the trek and again highlight the impact such actions have on the national park and its wildlife.
Wild Frontiers and the Wild Frontiers Foundation involvement in the project came about after MD & founder, Jonny Bealby, travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo with broadcaster Kate Humble in October last year to make a film about the Eastern Lowland Gorillas that roam the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in an effort to help rejuvenate interest for travel in the region.
While there, they also visited the Pole Pole Foundation, which John established 25 years ago to educate local people about the benefits of the forest and the wildlife that lives within it.
Meaning ‘slowly, slowly’ in Swahili, the Pole Pole Foundation has developed a number of invaluable projects to help improve the prospects of the local people and in turn help protect the Eastern Lowland Gorillas and the national park, including afforestation, environment education, tree planting, anti-poaching patrols, training for former poachers and the construction of fish ponds to provide local communities with a source of protein and help prevent the illegal poaching of bush meat.
This new project is an extension of the fantastic work of the Pole Pole Foundation.
The opportunity to visit the gorillas, which are now taking place with various groups from the villages, schools and authorities on a weekly basis, has generated a real enthusiasm and excitement within the communities.
Wild Frontiers Foundation's funding is enabling the Pole Pole Foundation to pay for gorilla and park permits, transportation, park guides and trackers for approx. 200 people.
With a commitment to continue our support, $200USD will also be donated by Wild Frontiers on behalf of each client we take to the Congo on our group trip ‘Congo & Rwanda: Great Apes of Africa’.
You can visit the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and the Eastern Lowland Gorillas with Wild Frontiers Founder, Jonny Bealby, and Pole Pole Foundation Founder and gorilla conservationist, John Kahekwa, in September this year.