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April 2020

The second lung

by Christine Anne Berger

The vast Congo Basin – sometimes simply known as the Congo – is one of the most beautiful and ecologically important places on Earth. It is the world’s second largest river basin and is home to the second largest rainforest on the planet. Covering much of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, western Zambia, northern Angola and parts of Cameroon and Tanzania, this sedimentary basin spans about 1.3 million square miles (3.4 million square kilometers).

Recent issues of LoveDornier228 have visited some of the most magical and environmentally important sites around the world, and the Congolese forest is both a hot topic in biodiversity – right alongside the deforestation of the Amazon – and one of the most extraordinary places to visit. The forest and its interlacing areas of savanna are home to rare and endangered species such as the zebra giraffe (okapi), the pygmy chimpanzee (bonobo), the Congo peafowl, the western lowland gorilla and the more famous mountain gorilla, as well as much of the world’s harvested teak wood. This majestic basin is considered by many to be “the world’s second lung following the Amazon.”

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Hikers exploring the Rwenzori Mountains on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These mountains support glaciers and are one source of the Nile River. (Photo: shutterstock)

Carbon sink

The Congo is the custodian of a major “carbon sink,” a natural reservoir that stores chemical compounds containing carbon. If the Congo continues to undergo deforestation, the carbon sink it protects will rapidly emit roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide as the United Kingdom has done over the last 60 years. In order to protect the world’s “second lung,” a non-profit initiative sponsored by over 40 international partners has been launched to promote the conservation and sustainability of forest management in the Congo. This initiative is called the Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP) and includes plans to build sustainable tourism, which will help provide sources of responsible employment for locals while also feeding many of the displaced people near the Congo.

Protecting the “ibirunga”

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the Congo’s Virunga National Park a World Heritage Site in 1979, internationally recognizing the park for its wildlife and habitats. Situated in the Albertine Rift valley, Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park. The Virunga Mountains make up much of the park and are known locally as the Mufumbiro. They are a chain of volcanoes that run along the northern border of Rwanda, the DRC and Uganda. The name “Virunga” is the English interpretation of the Kinyarwanda word “ibirunga” meaning “volcanoes”. Full of unique sights and experiences for its many visitors, the volcanic park is also home to active volcanoes such as Mount Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira.

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Endangered baby mountain gorilla playing– in Virunga National Park, DRC, Africa. (Photo: iStock)

Visiting Virunga’s volcanoes

Atop the summit of the active stratovolcano Mount Nyiragongo, hikers can gaze in awe at the world’s largest lava lake bubbling and churning, while they camp in the crater’s rim just a few meters away. As you look to the northern region of Virunga, you can see the largest snow-capped glaciers in Africa. And if you feel like mountain climbing, there is a 5,109 m (16,761 ft) high ascension in the Rwenzori Mountains to conquer. The magic continues as you travel to the center of the park to find safaris being guided through the vast Ishasha Plains full of elephants, lions, hippos, buffalo and giant forest hogs. 

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Nyiragongo Volcano’s lava lake at Virunga Park, DRC. (Photo: Shutterstock)

There is even a luxurious Mikeno lodge for those who seek out the serene simplicity of Tchegera Island, which is also the starting point for gorilla trekking.

Gorilla trekking

The dense jungles of Virunga offer gorilla trekkers the rare opportunity to see the critically endangered eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), which is the largest known living primate. There are only about 3,800 of these wonderful creatures left. Hikers may also be able to witness the even rarer mountain gorilla
(Gorilla beringei beringei), of which only 1,000 remain. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) cited illegal hunting, poaching, as the reason for this decline. Virunga is Africa’s most biologically diverse protected area and yet it is also one of the most dangerous places for a park ranger to live and work.

In 1966, primatologist and conservationist Diane Fossey began her mission to save the Congo’s endangered mountain gorilla and build up a network of local people to encourage the conservation of the Congo and its inhabitants. She was murdered in her lodge on December 27, 1985. Her legacy and passion continue to inspire locals to learn the language of the gorillas, protect them from poachers and become lifelong dedicated rangers at Virunga. Most rangers spend five days a week in the forest, only returning to their families at the weekend. These inspirational people will leave you in awe as they trek with you through the thick branches of bamboo, calling out to the gorillas in the language of the primates.

How it came to be in harm’s way

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The Congo River Basin, straddling the Equator in west-central Africa. (Photo: iStock)

The Congo has been devastated in many ways by many people. Poaching began in the Congo with King Leopold II of Belgium, who colonized northeastern Congo and pursued the exploitation of natural resources to fill his private purse and his country’s coffers. Later, Tutsi cattle herders destroyed much of the gorillas’ natural habitat, and not so long ago thousands of Rwandan refugees fled to the Kivu region. There have also been two wars that have destabilized the region.

Even with its historical turmoil, the Congo continues to be home to vast deposits of industrial diamonds, cobalt and copper, and the Congo’s rivers still contain about half of the continent’s hydroelectric potential. The Congo is also home to the previously mentioned “carbon sink” Lake Kivu, a large natural deposit of methane gas, which engineers hope to transform into electricity one day soon. It is said that the Congo is the richest place on Earth and the richest in untapped raw minerals, which are estimated to be worth about 24 trillion US dollars.

Fostering peace and prosperity

In response to today’s environmental situation, the park has developed a program known as the “Virunga Alliance,” which “fosters peace and prosperity through responsible economic development of natural resources.” The park aims to support approximately four million people in their local communities through hydropower, sustainable agriculture, fisheries and tourism. Deputy Director Dr. Chantal says: “I’m excited to be part of the Virunga Alliance’s groundbreaking efforts to conserve the park’s biodiversity and support sustainable development for the population of North Kivu.”

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Crater edge of Nyiragongo, DRC. (Photo: Shutterstock)

More information on visiting Virunga National Park

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