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Press Release: Our work in DR Congo expands by 50%

On Earth Day, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund announces 50% expansion of community forests protecting critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas in eastern DR Congo.

April 22, 2022 (ATLANTA) – This year on Earth Day, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is excited to announce that, in the past year, it has expanded the area of forest under its protection in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by 50%, from 1,583 square kilometers one year ago to 2,379 sq km today.

2022 marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Nkuba Conservation Area (NCA), a community-owned forest that was developed through a collaboration between local communities and the Fossey Fund. Over the past decade, the Fossey Fund has been employing its boot-on-the-ground approach to conservation to protect these forests and the estimated 200-300 critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas that live there.

Just last year, the NCA received official recognition from the Congolese government, giving local communities ownership and management rights over their own forests. The Fossey Fund has engaged in a 25-year management agreement with community leaders to help develop sustainable management plans for the forest. Based on the success of the model, which in addition to direct protection of the forest incorporates research on this critically understudied ecosystem, training of young Congolese scientists, and basic needs initiatives focused on food security, livelihoods and education, the Fossey Fund has been able to bring on more community partners and officially expand the area.

The NCA houses at least nine globally threatened large mammals, including Grauer’s gorillas and chimpanzees, and serves as a carbon sink for an estimated quarter billion tons of carbon. It is located within the Congo Basin, which is the world’s second largest tropical rainforest and one of our best natural defenses against climate change. Deforestation rates in the Congo Basin have accelerated over the last two decades; if trends continue, scientists predict there could be no primary rainforest left by the end of the century. Most of this decline is a result of expansion of subsistence farming, highlighting the need to not only increase protection efforts for these forests but also address food security and other basic needs of the human population.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund’s people - centered model of conservation focuses on food and water security and livelihood initiatives as well as gender equity. This program focuses on teachi ng women to make bread, which provides both nutritional support and income.

Recognizing the importance of protecting these forests, the Congolese government formalized the legal framework for creating community-owned forests in 2016, allowing landowners to apply for official recognition of their custodial rights and responsibilities to forests. In other countries where this approach has been adopted, community ownership provides an incentive to manage forests sustainably, slowing the rate of deforestation. Research in Latin America and Asia has shown that community ownership maintains or increases carbon storage. In addition, community managed forests can also benefit wildlife. A study published last year found that Grauer’s gorillas living in community-owned forests fared better than those in a nearby national park.

“It is exciting that as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of our work in Nkuba, we can also celebrate a 50% increase in the amount of protected forest, a very positive sign of the success of the community forest approach and hope for Grauer’s gorillas and hundreds of other species as well as for the planet given the critical role these forests play in climate regulation,” says Dr. Tara Stoinski, CEO and chief scientist of the Fossey Fund.

Aerial views of Nkuba Conservation Area, which now measures just under 2,400 sq km, more than twice the size of New York City.

The Fossey Fund, which began protecting mountain gorillas in Rwanda 55 years ago, expanded into DR Congo in 2001 to help save the rapidly declining Grauer’s gorillas. It is estimated that more than 60% of Grauer’s gorillas have been lost over the last few decades and the majority live outside of national parks, meaning they have no formal protection.

“We are doing more here than protecting the critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas,” says Urbain Ngobobo, Fossey Fund’s DRC country director. “We are also investing in the community, providing hundreds of jobs and developing education, livelihood and food security initiatives.  Our model of Helping People, Saving Gorillas is key to our success, we know that from decades of work in Rwanda and now we are seeing it in Congo as well.”