Parc National de la Lomami (2007-2016)
After almost a decade of work to secure the land, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) received its first national park in more than 45 years when then-prime minister Augustin Matata Ponyo officially established Parc National de la Lomami in July 2016. The 3,500-square-mile (9,000-square-kilometer) swath of land, known in English as Lomami National Park, is the first national park created in the DRC since 1970 and only the eighth area in the country with this designation, which garners the highest level of protection.
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology has been the backbone of the project since its inception in 2007, when the Lukuru Foundation began exploring the scarcely observed landscape between the Tshuapa, Lomami, and Lualaba Rivers. Beyond what local hunters understood, little was known about the forest composition or animals within this 15,000-square-mile (40,000-square-kilometer) area.
The initial expedition, called the TL2 Project (named for the three rivers), was led by John and Terese Hart, whose experience in diplomacy and field research prompted them to make it a locally based undertaking. From the first surveys conducted in 2007, the TL2 project recognized the benefits of employing GIS to explore, document, and define the region for conservation. That year, TL2 developed an innovative partnership with Nick January (GIS Consultant) and the Forest Health Alliance, which had been receiving an Esri conservation grant since 2005 for gorilla research in the DRC. With the Forest Health Alliance leading the implementation of GIS at Lukuru, the Harts and their researchers gained access to a full range of advanced Esri software licenses and extensions. With funding from the Arcus Foundation, the Abraham Foundation, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the TL2 Project composed a dedicated team of Congolese field biologists who used GIS to collect field data. Field data was relayed to the Forest Health Alliance GIS team and a detailed base map, the first of its kind, gradually took shape. As the project evolved, TL2 also used GIS to work with people from the area to delineate logical park boundaries, monitor wildlife, and establish protections for the park. Thus, Lomami became the first national park in the Congo (and one of few in Africa) to be established with major backing from local communities.
From 2007 to 2008, researchers also conducted field expeditions to survey the area. They observed wildlife and used GPS to map animal tracks, which helped them highlight areas that needed to be revisited and surveyed in greater detail in subsequent years. Right away, the team discerned zones with important animal populations and other areas devoid of wildlife.
With good geospatial data of the area finally coming in, the TL2 team was able to begin a process of constantly refining the existing spatial data and continuously organizing the steady inflow of new field data, which included reconnaissance surveys; maps of trail systems, wildlife observations, and small communities; and documented evidence of hunting. Soon, the organization developed a comprehensive, current, and dynamic mapping system that pulled information from multiple sources in the field and revealed areas with strong wildlife populations and limited human interaction—prime locations to protect. As the national park started to take form, the digital maps generated by TL2’s GIS evolved on-screen into a dynamic representation of the proposed park that contained diverse habitats ranging from tropical lowlands and forested hills to swamps and natural savannas.
Throughout the project, TL2 field researchers made a number of important discoveries. In particular, GIS helped them document and map the existence and range of many wildlife species. It is now known, for example, that Lomami is home to several rare or endemic primate species, including the recently discovered lesula monkey and a newly identified population of the extremely rare Dryas monkey. Other important primates found within the park include populations of the bonobo chimpanzee, wolf’s monkey, the blue monkey, and the red-tailed monkey. Researchers confirmed the existence of the okapi, the DRC’s endemic forest giraffe (whose presence was only suspected before). TL2 documented more than 275 bird species as well, including the vulnerable Congo peafowl. And at least 500 African forest elephants were found living in the park—one of the country’s last remaining elephant populations.
Three years after the national park designation, in April 2019, the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) officially incorporated the LNP as one of their global conservation projects and the partnership with the Forest Health Alliance came to a successful end.