The Great Ape Habitat Connectivity Project develops and documents 6,000 sq Km or 600,000 hectares of forest connecting the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and the Itombwe Nature Reserve, constituting the Kahuzi Biega – Itombwe Corridor.
The connectivity of natural ecosystems and habitats is vital for the conservation of biodiversity. Without continuous habitat, species suffer in isolated fragments with limited resources and opportunities, leading to population declines and biodiversity loss. The Kahuzi-Biega – Itombwe Corridor project aims to prevent habitat degradation and enhance biodiversity through establishing a habitat corridor for the wildlife and ecosystems of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The project encompasses 6,000 km of unprotected forest between Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Itombwe Nature Reserve in South Kivu province. The region is located in the nexus of the globally significant ecosystems of the Congo Basin Forest and Albertine Rift and is home to endangered species such as the eastern lowland gorilla, eastern chimpanzees, and forest elephants. These forests, at the headwaters of the Congo River, not only regulate local climate and soil protection, but are critical to maintaining global ecological services – storing carbon that counteracts global climate change and playing a role in regulating one of the world’s largest river basins.
The work to protect these ecosystems would not be possible without the cooperation and collaboration of the local communities that live and depend on them. Since 2010, Strong Roots Congo has been working to engage hundreds of villages and traditional leaders across the seven chiefdoms that span the Kahuzi-Biega – Itombwe Corridor project area. Many of these communities have lived as part of this land for thousands of years and have a vested interest in the preservation of the landscape, ecosystems, and wildlife for future generations.
Establishing the Kahuzi-Biega – Itombwe Corridor is being achieved through securing land tenure and land rights of traditional forestlands for local communities and forest peoples, to enhance biodiversity conservation while improving community livelihoods and climate change resilience. Working with local communities and getting buy-in from community leaders is essential for the success of this project. Together we are working with communities to improve livelihoods and raise awareness about environmental issues.
Since 2019, Strong Roots Congo and Forest Health Alliance have been working with a consortium of international partners and supporters including the International Conservation Fund of Canada (ICFC), Good Energies, Erol Foundation, Rainforest Trust Foundation, and Age of Union Alliance. These organizations have worked collaboratively to support the land titling process for communities in the corridor. They have also supported on-going wildlife monitoring, biodiversity surveys, sustainable livelihood activities, and advanced scientific research in the region. So far the combined efforts of these organizations have legally secured the land title of 13 ‘Forest Concessions of Local Communities (CFCL) out of 21 across the entire corridor, protecting 258,118 hectares for local communities and wildlife. Several other land title applications have been submitted with the support of Strong Roots and are expected to be awarded in the coming months. These are currently the only titled CFCLs in South Kivu province, representing a huge milestone for the project and the region.
Project activities rely heavily on working with community leaders to influence forest governance and management.
Through working with local communities there have been direct and indirect impacts on the gorilla populations within the corridor area. In Burhinyi Community Forest, near the Itombwe Nature Reserve, we have worked with the local chief to ban all hunting of great apes. Though it is already illegal, the local chief’s instructions often carry more weight than the law and has resulted in a massive decrease in illegal hunting of great apes in the area. This has had very positive impacts on local gorilla and chimpanzee populations. By working closely with surrounding communities at Itombwe NR to improve their livelihoods and raising awareness on the Grauer’s gorilla decline, local populations have engaged in conservation initiatives at the Reserve.
This project is a massive undertaking and we still have much more work to do. Through community engagement, collaborative partnerships, and lots of hard work there have already been signs that the project is having positive impacts on the communities and wildlife in the area. Through establishing this community forest corridor, people, wildlife, and the environment will benefit in a more long-term, sustainable way.