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Heritage listing spurs Congo park poaching crackdown
by Staff Writers
Nouabale Ndoki, Congo (AFP) Aug 7, 2012

Home to lush virgin forest and thousands of elephants, gorillas and rare antelope, the Nouabale Ndoki national park in northern Republic of Congo was virtually unknown until a few weeks ago.

But now the park, given World Heritage status in June by the UN's cultural and science body UNESCO, must live up to the accolade which has raised its profile internationally.

Nouabale Ndoki -- named after the two rivers that surround it -- is one of three parks making up the Sangha River Tri-national protected area on the Congolese border, along with the Dzanga park in Central African Republic and Cameroon's Lobeke park.

The park "is a unique experience", said Abdourahamane Diallo, UNESCO's representative in Congo.

"Congo is bursting with natural heritage which is known locally but not really nationally. With the (UNESCO) listing, Nouabale Ndoki has acquired elevated status."

The park's biggest challenge is protecting its wildlife from poachers that threaten to rob the sanctuary of its new-found reputation.

One of Nouabale Ndoki's biggest draws is its elephant population, estimated to be between 6,000 and 7,000, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), one of the biggest environmental organisations working in Central Africa.

But an increase in poaching has diminished the population, says WCS, which manages Nouabale Ndoki jointly with the forestry ministry and Congo's CIB timber company.

"Around 5,000 elephants have been killed by poachers in recent years," says WCS advisor Thomas Breuer. "Poaching is everywhere."

Elephants are attracted to the rich fauna and can often be spotted wading in two swampy forest clearings called Mbeli Bay and Waly Bay, where they are easy prey for armed poachers that infiltrate the park boundaries.

Poaching is big business in Central Africa where regional governments have been working to crack down on the problem, increasing fines for poaching and tightening cross-border controls.

Elephant ivory is the main target, destined for lucrative markets in Asia. A recent estimate from WWF found that between 5,000 and 12,000 elephants are killed every year for their tusks.

But Noualabe Ndoki's 400 plain gorillas -- which like elephants, are classed as a threatened species -- are also on the poachers' hunting list, as are citatunga antelope, which are prized for their flesh.

Fifty-five WCS workers, plus 15 civil servants and between 100 and 150 casual staff -- some of whom are pygmies -- patrol the park and do their best to limit poaching with the means they have.

"To manage every aspect of the park including anti-poaching measures, ecotourism activities, research and education, we have a budget of 400-500 million CFA francs ($755,000-$940,500/610,000-760,000 euros) per year," said Breuer.

Park authorities want to exploit Nouabale Ndoki's World Heritage listing to develop ecotourism.

"From now on the whole international community will be looking at the management and conservation of the park which will give another vision of ecotourism," said Antoinette Nkabi, environmental advisor to Congo's forestry ministry.

The park already sends vistors out with locals who know where Nile crocodiles or ferocious Goliath tiger fish are lurking.

"Every time there is a visitor we give them a local guide to accompany them. Locals know the park better than anyone," says Ghislain Abegouo, head of public relations for Noualabe Ndoki.

But getting to the park is no easy task. There is no road to the Sangha area, home to the largest part of the park, which makes access difficult for tourists.

This means that on average only 300 tourists -- mostly Westerners -- visit Nouabale Ndoki each year.

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