Imagine an area the size of 17,000 square kilometers, or in other words, an area the size of Swaziland. Now fill it with zebra, elephant, and oribi. Add in the indigenous Upemba lechwa and herds of roan and sable. Carve in deep gorges, flowing with rivers that lead to cascading waterfalls. Drop in lakes and marshes and an endless savannah. Now turn the clock over sixty years. The landscape remains striking. But now decrease the area to just over 10,000 square kilometers and remove the wildlife, or at least, all but a few zebra, a couple elephant, and a scattering of gazelle. This is the once glorious, now forgotten, Upemba National Park.
Upemba National Park is one of the oldest in Africa having been created in 1939 by the Belgian colonial government. The park, a once thriving haven of wildlife and tourism – and once one of the most biodiverse parks in Africa – is now almost completely devoid of animals, though it is home to the last remaining zebra in the Congo and the last remaining elephant in the Katanga province. As part of a two-year project financed by the European Union, we are undertaking the rehabilitation of Upemba, a park that has historically received very little international support. It will be the first time in the history of Upemba that an international NGO is based within the park’s borders.
Upemba National Park, at 10,000km2 in size, has arguably one of the most magnificent and diverse landscapes in Africa. The park’s deep gorges, cliffs and waterfalls, its marshes, lakes and the Lufira river, all form a striking contrast to its immense expanse of savannah (with a plateau of 1,400m-1,800m) and miombo woodland. The Upemba wetlands, which form the source of the Congo River, represent one of the most important wetland areas in all of Africa. The park is located between Latitude 9°5’ and 8°45’ South, and Longitude 25°50’ and 27°10’ East. Its various annexes, and those of neighboring Kundelungu National Park, border it.
Upemba was once one of the most biodiverse parks in all of Africa, and between the 1950-70’s was home to various species of big game including lion, elephant and rhino. Due to years of abuse, poaching and instability wildlife has been almost completely depleted. The park contains the last remaining zebra in the entire DRC (a herd of about 20 individuals), the last elephants in the Katanga province, and recently a few isolated pairs of oribi and several troops of baboons have been seen here. " class="has-pullquote pullquote-adelle">Birdlife is surprisingly diverse with many endemic and endangered species such as the shoebilled stalk and the wattled crane. The Goliath Tiger fish has also been spotted on numerous occasions in areas of the Lufira River which runs through the park.
Poaching has been the main threat to the park over recent years offering a means of survival for the poor and a lucrative business opportunity for others supplying Lubumbashi’s top restaurants with bushmeat. As a result, Upemba has lost a substantial amount of its wildlife. This has been enhanced by military conflict in the region as well as by a history and culture of corruption by local authorities.
Community development comprises a large part of our project, with education playing a prominent role in changing local attitudes and building awareness of the need for, and importance of, conservation work. Social and economic opportunities will be created as a result of the work being undertaken in the park, which in turn, will help alleviate the strain being put on the park’s natural resources by the local population. Health centers and schools will also be built for local communities, with the aim of creating long-term social and environmental sustainability.
Lusinga, the park’s headquarters, came under attack in 2004 by Mai Mai rebels. This resulted in the death of seven people, including park rangers and the chief park warden’s wife. The attack also caused substantial structural damage to buildings.
While the security risks have diminished substantially over the years, Mbwe village, within the park’s boundaries, is a Mai Mai rebel-held village and represents a potential threat to the success of the project. There are also various mines bordering the park’s southern sector, and it is unclear, at this point, just how significant a risk they could be in the long-term.
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The rehabilitation of Upemba National Park is complex and its main activities include:
- Rebuilding critical park infrastructure
- Providing anti-poaching training and field equipment for park rangers
- Supporting community development and education
- Reintroducing wildlife into newly secured areas within the park, and
- Developing tourism Security within the park must be increased substantially, and a rigorous training of park rangers will be conducted. Military-style training will enable rangers to patrol efficiently and effectively in the park and keep any existing – and future – wildlife safe from poachers.
The 2004 Mai Mai rebel attack caused significant damage to some of the park headquarters’ buildings. The project therefore aims to undertake substantial rebuilding at the Lusinga headquarters, creating offices and suitable accommodation for park rangers and theFZS staff, as well as redeveloping tourism infrastructure. In an effort to improve community development, FZS will build schools and health centers in neighbouring villages, and will set up conservation education programs for the local communities.
- 1939 – Upemba is created as an official National Park on May 15 by the Belgian colonial government
- 1946-49 – GF de Witte conducts a scientific mission/survey in Upemba, recording all flora and fauna present at the time
- 1950-1970’s – The park is at its peak, and it flourishes with high numbers of wildlife and tourism
- 1970’s – The park’s boundaries gradually decrease from 17,730km2 to its current-day size of 10,000km2
- 1982 – Rangers and park guards stop receiving salaries due to a breakdown of government structures. Without patrols and law enforcement, poaching increases.
- 1990’s – Military conflict and the presence of Mai Mai rebels put pressure on the park, wildlife numbers decrease
- 2004 – Mai Mai militia attack on Lusinga park headquarters, resulting in structural damage of the station and 7 deaths to park rangers and the park warden’s wife.
- 2004-2006 – The park is under Mai Mai control, with poaching and mining as their main activities. The rebels open bushmeat commercial centers in the park and fully exploit its wildlife.
- 2005-2006 – The park rangers and government forces re-gain control over the park. About 25,000 Mai Mai rebels come out of the park. The UN reintegrates them into civil society.
- 2011 – Frankfurt Zoological Society initiates a 2-year project funded by the EU to rehabilitate Upemba National Park