Against the current: Protecting Salonga, the Congo’s green heart

As far as boardwalks go, this one looks unremarkable. Its narrow, slippery planks cut a path through the dense rainforest of central Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), mere inches above boot-swallowing mud and coffee-colored pools of unknown depth.

But given the journey these planks have taken, the fact that this boardwalk exists at all is a triumph.

Salonga National Park contains a forest the size of Maryland (or Belgium), significant populations of rare species, neighboring communities who have long relied on this forest for survival — and zero paved or all-season roads. The only way to reach the park is by spending many days on the river or flying in on a chartered bush plane. Once inside Salonga, modes of travel are restricted to motorized canoes, motorcycles and — more reliably — one’s own feet. To reach Bekalikali Bai, a natural forest clearing where forest elephants and other wildlife regularly congregate at night, visitors must spend four hours hiking 11 kilometers through thick, humid jungle swamp from the patrol post of Lokofa. Adding a boardwalk over the swampiest parts of the trail was conceived to make this trek a little easier.

Since it is forbidden to cut down trees within the park, the boardwalk’s planks were sourced by community members elsewhere in the Salonga landscape and transported to Lokofa by pirogue (dugout canoe) from the park’s headquarters in Monkoto, a town two hours upriver. Other supplies, including nails and tools, had to be brought in from the city of Mbandaka, a several-day boat trip away.

From the river’s edge, workers carried the heavy planks several kilometers into the forest on a machete-hewn trail. Laying down the first stretch of boardwalk took a team more than a month of labor amid oppressive humidity, frequent downpours and omnipresent clouds of mosquitos. While the boardwalk is not yet complete, it has already drastically reduced the amount of time needed to access Bekalikali Bai, metaphorically paving the way for more frequent visitors, such as local schoolchildren, researchers and eventually even tourists.

Workers take a break from constructing the boardwalk between Lokofa and Bekalikali Bai in Salonga National Park, DRC. This boardwalk will make it easier for researchers and visitors to travel between the two sites. (Photo courtesy of WWF)
Workers take a break from constructing the boardwalk between Lokofa and Bekalikali Bai in Salonga National Park, DRC. This boardwalk will make it easier for researchers and visitors to travel between the two sites. (Photo courtesy of WWF)

Salonga is vast, bountiful, mysterious — and under threat. Limited access to other towns and markets has restricted villagers’ income-generating opportunities and kept poverty levels high. And as urban bushmeat markets grow and the illegal wildlife trade continues to expand, hunters with few livelihood alternatives are ever more motivated to poach and smuggle animal products out of the park.

With possible threats such as oil drilling, logging and expanding industrial agriculture also on the horizon, the next few years will be crucial in determining Salonga’s future. So how does one begin to protect this inaccessible, undersupplied cornerstone for people and nature? Here in Africa’s largest forest park, in the heart of the Congo Basin, community development and conserving wildlife go hand in hand.

A refuge — and a lifeline

From the air, Salonga’s forest stretches in every direction, hiding a range of wildlife from leopards to giant pangolins to forest buffalo. The park is also one of the last refuges for forest elephants, whose numbers have dropped exponentially in recent years. It also contains as much as 40 percent of the world’s bonobo population — a great ape cousin of the chimpanzee whose entire habitat exists within the DRC’s forests. In addition, Salonga acts as a major carbon sink, absorbing the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and helping to lessen the impacts of climate change worldwide.

Map courtesy of WWF-CAFEC
Map courtesy of WWF-CAFEC

For years, Salonga’s size and isolation may have helped protect its forests and wildlife from unsustainable exploitation while at the same time limiting economic opportunities for the region’s people. None of its species are habituated, or acclimated to human presence, and only one viewing platform at Bekalikali Bai has been built to date. This means that many species are hard to see, much less count.

However, research is progressing. In 2018, scientists were able to estimate forest elephant and bonobo populations in the park with a higher degree of accuracy than ever before (1,600 and 15,000, respectively), as well as confirm the presence of endangered wildlife in unexpected areas of the park. In addition to informing protection of threatened species like forest elephants, such biomonitoring is key to developing an improved understanding of Salonga’s many endemic species, including the Congo peafowl.

Photo gallery: Salonga’s elusive wildlife

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But maintaining these wildlife populations is by no means guaranteed. The park is divided into two large forest blocks, with a corridor in between where legal hunting and agriculture support local livelihoods. At least 250,000 people live in hundreds of villages in and around the park. This population has long used the forest to source everything from food to building materials to medicinal plants. Building strong relationships with these vibrant communities is critical for Salonga’s future.

Yet it is illegal hunting (or poaching), both for local consumption and wildlife trafficking, which persists as one of the greatest threats to Salonga’s wildlife. Currently, the species most threatened by poaching are those with low reproductive rates (such as bonobos) and those that are in high demand on the global market (including pangolins). As for the forest elephant, which checks both boxes, losing only a few elephants could determine the species’ fate in Salonga.

Infrastructure: the root of the problem

Many challenges in Salonga stem from the same issue: inaccessibility. Several of the park’s eight administrative blocks are only reachable by plane and require that the government rangers stationed there sleep in tents, as there are no buildings. The lack of all-season roads and reliable transport is a daily hindrance to both rangers and researchers whose work depends on access to the forest.

Get a glimpse at what it’s like to travel on the rivers, roads and trails around Salonga National Park. (Note: some footage has been sped up.)

Meanwhile, in the corridor between the park’s two halves, the local population relies on deteriorating bridges built decades earlier. Some communities have built bamboo replacements as a temporary measure, but these are dangerous to cross with vehicles and are not durable, requiring frequent repairs and rebuilding.

In August 2018, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) replaced five of these bridges with new ones made of wood and concrete — and capable of bearing the weight of a truck. The main purpose of these bridges is to connect agricultural producers in nearby villages to the market in Monkoto, expanding their opportunities for trade and income.

WWF is gradually replacing the deteriorating bridges (left) around Salonga National Park with new ones that are safer and easier to cross with vehicles (right). Improving the connectivity between villages will allow farmers better access to markets where they can sell their crops. In the right photo, the old bamboo bridge has a new use as a laundry drying rack. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)

Expanding infrastructure could prove to be a double-edged sword if improving access accelerates poaching. However, newfound access to important markets and services could strengthen community support for conservation efforts and reduce pressure on the park. For example, in 2018 and 2019, WWF supported the development of farmer associations in the corridor so they could aggregate their agricultural products and leverage better market prices, resulting in increased incomes. In March 2020 the organization formally handed over a new health center in Nsambwankoy, a village northwest of Salonga where both indigenous (‘pygmy’) and Bantu families reside. Before this health center was built, villagers needing medical attention had to travel to the nearest hospital in Wafanya — a 22-kilometer motorbike ride through mud, over bamboo bridges and around wandering livestock that can be harrowing journey even for healthy passengers. Another health center in the town of Mangilombe, (55 kilometers from Wafanya) was also handed over to local authorities the same day. One representative of Mangilombe expressed gratitude for “this jewel which could not have been achieved without [WWF’s] material and financial support.”

WWF has also helped these two mixed indigenous and Bantu communities to register their own community forest concessions, which legally recognizes their historical rights to those forests. Research indicates that communities with tenure over the land they inhabit have more incentives to manage it sustainably.  

Built in 2018, this guesthouse provides a place for visitors to stay in Monkoto, Salonga’s headquarters. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)
Built in 2018, this guesthouse provides a place for visitors to stay in Monkoto, Salonga’s headquarters. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)

Many other construction projects are underway in and around the park, including new bridges, patrol posts and building additional housing for park staff in Monkoto. Their progress could be expedited with easier access to materials and skilled labor.

Newly constructed health center in Mangilombe. (Photo by Patrick Fimpadio/WWF)
Newly constructed health center in Mangilombe. (Photo by Patrick Fimpadio/WWF)

WWF staff Patrick Fimpadio is an engineer who leads Salonga’s infrastructure work. “When I arrived, I noticed that there was not really any skilled labor [here],” he says. “There were no local associations that could compete, for example, with outside organizations.” Fimpadio has been training community members to enhance his team, and hopes to develop an association that would teach construction and engineering skills to local workers, as well as encourage local production of construction materials. “If you go to the market today … for those who knew Monkoto before, you will see that there are improvements. This proves that the Monkoto market is starting to interest economic operators.”

Pineapples and textbooks

Benz Ekumba used to farm much the same way as most farmers in Monkoto Territory; as productivity waned in his cassava fields, he would slash and burn another patch of forest and then replant. But after attending a 2016 training course with WWF, he transformed his land into a sustainable permaculture farm. His farm is now one of 10 “model farms” that aims not only to boost his own productivity, but to demonstrate to his neighbors how employing sustainable farming methods like crop rotation and natural fertilizer can improve yields and reduce the need to cut down forest.

“Before, I cleared everywhere and I proceeded from one place to another,” Ekumba recounts. “When I was advised to work on the same space by diversifying products … my production increased.” In addition to cassava, Ekumba now grows other crops including maize, sweet potatoes, amaranth, pineapples and avocados — all complemented by three newly constructed fish ponds.

Thanks to this increase in crop yields, Ekumba can continuously rely on his two-hectare plot for agriculture products and no longer has any need to go into the forest. “I am very busy with my farm activities; I do not have time anymore and I do not even think about entering the forest to look for forest products. I now depend on my farm.”

A manmade fishpond at a model farm in Monkoto. By diversifying their products, farmers can bring in more income while getting higher yields out of existing farmland, reducing their need to cut down more forest. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)
A manmade fishpond at a model farm in Monkoto. By diversifying their products, farmers can bring in more income while getting higher yields out of existing farmland, reducing their need to cut down more forest. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)

His earnings also enabled him to send his wife to Kinshasa for medical treatment last year, an option that previously would have been unimaginable.

Ekumba has other ambitions as well, including building more fishponds, raising pigs and cows, producing compost and planting a grove of oil palm trees. “If I incorporate all these products, believe me, I will live better than the people in Kinshasa.”

As part of the model farm agreement, Ekumba has since spread his newfound knowledge and farming methods to multiple farmers around Monkoto. The sustainable agriculture practiced on Ekumba’s and the other nine model farms has now been replicated on more than 50 other farms in the area. Ekumba is a member of a local farmer association, and he also regularly shares his experiences with other members of the local agriculture advisory group comprised of farmers, government officials and other community members, including many women.

Across town from Ekumba’s farm, a group gathers under a bamboo shelter to await the start of today’s lesson. The students — mostly women, some with babies sleeping on their laps — are members of a literacy/numeracy club supported by WWF. Only about two-thirds of the women in the DRC can read and write, and the percentage drops even more in rural areas. This limitation makes it difficult for women to easily manage household budgets, let alone run a business.

Ma Maguy Bengele Boimbo, a student in Monkoto’s literacy/numeracy club, leads the class in a reading lesson. Only about two-thirds of women in the DRC can read and write. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)
Ma Maguy Bengele Boimbo, a student in Monkoto’s literacy/numeracy club, leads the class in a reading lesson. Only about two-thirds of women in the DRC can read and write. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)

Three times a week, the club gathers to build their reading and basic math skills under the instruction of a local teacher. The group includes women from various ethnic groups, as well as indigenous peoples — an example of social integration that remains rare in this region. With the more advanced students helping the beginners, the group gives the students a safe space to practice a skill that some are embarrassed that they haven’t yet mastered.

The women’s association that hosts the club has also started a soap-making business that caters to the local market, and some of the members have also started making soap at home for sale.

The members’ growing literacy and numeracy skills are already helping them keep track of customers and soap purchases. Gode Bobando, a women’s group participant, explains: “As I sell the soaps here, I have with me my notebook and pen, with which I write the names of people so that I do not forget them.”

None of these activities would be possible without financing from the park. In the words of Jean Elias Ngwasetebi Mulo, Monkoto’s territorial administrator and long-time resident, “People have realized that without conservation, we cannot do anything in Monkoto.” (Hear more from him in the video below.)

Jean Elias Ngwasetebi Mulo summarizes the range of benefits the park provides to his community. 

The Congolese park authority’s station chief in Monkoto, Ewing Lopongo, shares some of the challenges she’s faced on the job.

A group effort

Since the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) began funding conservation work in Salonga years ago, other bilateral donors have contributed additional resources to complement efforts to conserve the park and empower the communities that surround it. In a place this remote, even a small improvement in crop yields or a bridge connecting two villages can have a positive impact on daily lives.

As for what Salonga’s future holds, it remains to be seen. A new multi-year project to habituate a population of bonobos within the park could give researchers better access to a species that has rarely been studied in the wild, and infrequently in Salonga. It could also be a draw for tourists interested in seeing endangered species found only in the DRC and searching for a rugged adventure they couldn’t get anywhere else. Plans are also in place to conduct a feasibility assessment for ecotourism in Salonga to better understand the current opportunities and risks.

As the Bekalikali Bai boardwalk attests, progress in Salonga can sometimes be slow, cumbersome and complicated. But it’s still happening, and each new plank added represents the painstaking efforts of a network of local residents, park managers and staff and scientists All are dedicated to protecting Salonga while improving livelihoods and building a sustainable local economy — an economy that is only possible through protecting the forest.

WWF staffer Papy Lolatui using the new boardwalk on the way to Bekalikali Bai. (Photo: Cary Farley/WWF)
WWF staffer Papy Lolatui using the new boardwalk on the way to Bekalikali Bai. (Photo: Cary Farley/WWF)
About the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE)

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) CARPE program supports initiatives to improve the management of the Congo Basin’s biodiversity and natural resources. Since 1995, the program has invested millions of dollars in protecting the massive forest sometimes called Earth’s “second lung” while providing local people with economic alternatives to overexploiting it. 

CARPE is implemented in collaboration with African Parks, African Wildlife Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the University of Maryland, the Wildlife Conservation Society, World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund and other partners. Learn more

Video clips at top of page: A drone follows the river upstream in Salonga National Park; ants marching by the park headquarters in Monkoto; a man paddles a pirogue (wooden dugout canoe) on the Lualaka River; the patrol post/research base of Lokofa as seen from above; a member of a local women’s group slices homemade soap for sale in town; butterflies alight near a stream being used for washing clothes near Monkoto; a rare motorboat on the Lualaka River; Bekalikali Bai as seen from above. Drone footage by Jonas Abana Eriksson; all other footage by Molly Bergen. Music by Domaro.

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