Friday, August 10, 2012

The Conservation Values and Risks to the Kundelungu & Upemba Ecosystem

Over the last three weeks I've been in southeast DRC (Katanga) assisting in activities by the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) in the development of a General Management Plan (GMP) for two national parks--Upemba and Kundelungu (see previous posts #1#2, #3, and #4) and this UNHCR MAP to better locate where we work in the DRC and  see larger PDF Map of both parks within Katanga HERE.

In my last post I described the miracle of rebirth and re-growth “out of the ashes” of late dry-season fires that are everywhere right now. Many of them are caused by humans practicing swidden or “shifting slash-and-burn” agriculture which under current demographic pressures has become a growing threat to the parks.  One of our tasks is to help our hosts (FZS and the ICCN--the DRC national parks agency) think through what habitats and resources require the most protection, i.e. identify which ones are most vulnerable to threats such as fire and agriculture as well as others including: illegal fishing, wood-cutting, charcoal production, poaching, mining, and other human or natural activities that impact their Sustainability and degrade Biodiversity.

How does one Assess and Map the Status of the Ecosystem?

We’re not experts in every aspect of biology or ecology but it is our job to help map what’s here--with the help of the science specialists and park officials--using conservation science tools such as GIS, GPS, and Remote Sensing--see more about its use in conservation at the Society for Conservation GIS (SCGIS).  These tools can help assess the level of threat, prioritize what needs protection, and design a doable management system that fits the goals set by our partners. 

A common approach is to describe the structure, content, and condition of the vegetation--what is known as its phytogeography.  This method describes the distribution of the broad ecosystem types, e.g. forests, savannas, and aquatic habitats found here.  An excellent example was done by a group from the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren Belgium.  In 2009 they produced a map--Carte d’Occupation du Sol (small version below & PDF Version HERE)--that is based on an FAO methodology known as the LCCS (Land Cover Classification System).  This method is particularly useful for assessing land resources crucial to agriculture and forestry--read more about this methodology at the AFRICOVER Project.

Another approach in ecological assessment is one commonly used by biologists/ecologists who look at what are called Biotopes which are defined as

An area of uniform environmental conditions providing a living place for a specific assemblage of plants and animals…

This method assesses in detail the biological communities, habitats and species that live together and it requires measuring a wider range of factors including: soil, geology, topography, climate, elevation, fire history, predation, human impacts, and other elements of biodiversity.  Scientists from Tervuren and elsewhere have done a lot using this biodiversity approach across what is called the Southern Miombo Woodland Ecoregion (see also Bruce Byers report 2001).  Miombo is found primarily in the Zambezi Basin of southern Africa, but it also extends into adjacent areas of Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and South Africa (among others).   

In the DRC the best remaining Miombo woodlands are located on the High Katanga Plateau in Kundelungu National Park  (see  larger PDF Map of both parks HERE) .  Unfortunately, the previous map--Carte d’Occupation du Sol--PDF Version HEREmakes no mention of Miombo ecosystems.  We think this is a an oversight that may work for using the LCCS approach on a global scale, but one that overlooks important local ecosystem variations or sub-types that are important in park management of risks and values.  So we recommend combining elements of both systems to do our assessment.

So--what landcover classification system do we believe we should use in our analysis?

In sum, we believe that both approaches described above--the phytogeographical (plant geography) and the biodiversity (biotopological) approaches are valid and useful for different purposes--so we’ll use them both depending on the management and research goals set out by the GMP.  In fact for broad categories of vegetation the first will be used and then we'll enhance by pointing out sub-types (within the broad categories) that may otherwise be missed that are important for both conservation and tourism purposes--recognizing local terms and views.  Below is a picture of typical Miombo on the High Katanga Plateau (more later).

Why are Kundelungu and Upemba Important?

They are the only parks in DRC with major savannas as well as Miombo woodlands and also have very unique aquatic habitats as well.  As such they represent a special biodiversity heritage site for the country (see  larger PDF Map of both parks HERE).  We should add, that there is a lot we don’t understand yet about Miombo and related ecosystems.  That is one reason we need to assess now before increasing pressures destroy what is remaining (more below).  In fact, just recently a visiting scientist who spent a few days walking around Katwe Station in Kundelungu discovered a new frog species--a rare event these days. 

The Miombo ecosystem is also potentially subject to dramatic climate change impacts over the next few years which will bring even more stress on flora and fauna as well as humans.  Miombo and associated Dry Forests are also a major “carbon sink” for Africa--second in importance only to the Rainforest of the Congo Basin itself.  And, these woodlands are one of the largest easily accessible sources of firewood for charcoal for human use (Makala) in the rapidly growing cities such as Lubumbashi (more on this aspect of things later).

Katanga is also rich in geological resources as well as having a turbulent human history (often violent in nature) which could overwhelm both nature and human sustainability.  In fact, most of the loss of the big game animals during the last fifteen years occurred during the so-called “Great African Wars” of the mid 1990s-2007--although some would say they have not yet ended.  As such Katanga has some of the richest mines of the world and is part of the famous Copperbelt of Africa.  And there is more than just copper, it also produces casserite, coltan, tin, gold, diamonds, titanium and more which many countries are literally “buying up” by the day!  

Walk around Lubumbashi the regional capital--see also photo album on my Facebook page--and you can see that some people and organizations are making a lot of money.  Will the companies involved and the government and regular citizens have the will to protect nature? Sadly, most people we talk to don’t even know the parks exist. Will the population and growing population recognize in time that they have a rare gem of a park just three hours from their city?  Hopefully this blog can increase knowledge and awareness of the park’s value as both a source of natural resources as well as a place for solitude, natural beauty, and recreation--a commodity much in demand here.

Key Resources to Learn More:
  • For a more on the biology/geology of the parks and their wildlife resources you might start with the last major ecological assessment done in 2008 by Robert Muir of FZS as well as one in 2009 led by Dr. Hilde Vanleeuwe of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other partners.  
  • Another important research center to follow with strengths in both the geological and biological sciences is the AEON (Africa Earth Observatory Network) based at the University of Cape Town in South Africa--see particularly work by Woody Cotterill.  And of course consult the vast resources at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren Belgium; later we’ll provide a more extensive bibliography.
Summary: Our goal in the next five posts will be to provide a visual overview for those we’re working with and for the outside world--as such it is part of our educational and training work.  I hope you’ll be impressed with the beauty and diversity of landscapes, habitats, and species found here from the smallest wildflowers, to rare birds, fish, and herpetofauna as well as insects and butterflies to large mammals such as the zebra and elephants.  The latter are now on a severely threatened status within the DRC Miombo Woodlands!  More will be added as we continue the project.  Also consult the FZS Communications and News page online.  So please give feedback and come back often.  Enjoy!

Kiubo Falls on the Lufira River--a tantalizing view of aquatic
resources that are stunning in beauty, power and life!

NEXT POST: Landscape Ecology of DAMBOS in Kundelungu (More detail on the Aquatic Ecosystem and Habitats in Upemba and Kundelungu)

My best, Robert (Geobob) Ford

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