Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire)

The last wild population of northern white rhinos was reduced to remnant teens by poaching with automatic weapons, helicopters, and even light cannons. Now with protection and recently activated poaching patrols their numbers have rebounded in Garamba National Park.

Wildlife near extinction elsewhere have found homes in the vast tropical lowland rain forest which covers almost half this third-largest African country. Through its 400,000 square miles (1,000,000-plus km2), called Africa’s Amazonia, the Congo (Zaire) River winds a path longer than the Mississippi with water volume second only to the Amazon. Biodiversity here reflects not only varied habitats but survival through ice ages and built-in protection, at least until recently, by remoteness and inaccessibility.

Here striped-legged, endangered okapis browse with elephants that have evolved adaptations to multiple habitats. Of the country’s 1,426-plus bird species, dozens, including the beautiful Congo peacock, exist only here.

In grasslands standing 17 feet (5 m) tall to the south are giraffes, leopards, and the world’s only remaining viable population of northern white rhinoceros. On slopes edging the Great Albertine Rift Valley in the east are eastern lowland gorillas and rare golden and owl-faced monkeys. Of the country’s more than 400 larger mammal species, 31 are primates.

Among more than 50 amphibians are hairy frogs named for furry hips and flanks which males develop in breeding season. Of more than 10,000 plants, 3,200 grow nowhere else.

Environmental concern in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (aka DRC, formerly Zaire) goes back to creation of Africa’s first national park in 1925—Virunga, established to protect mountain gorillas. Now seven percent of the DRC has been set aside in parks and reserves with a stated goal of 12–15 percent.

Future of these natural treasures depends on solution to a host of problems, starting with conflict, population growth, political instability, and corruption (which makes conservation funds disappear). These in turn lead to inadequate attention and control of poaching, slash-and-burn agriculture, illegal logging, and exploitation of DRC’s vast mineral wealth and hydroelectric potential (13 percent of the world’s). As if that weren’t enough, DRC has been overrun in recent years by millions of refugees from Rwanda and Sudan, squatting near or in reserves, clearing, cutting wood, slaughtering wildlife with automatic weapons for “bush meat” and body parts salable at high prices for everything from decoration to folk medicine and aphrodisiacs. Forty-four park guards were killed in related fighting and looting.

If stability can be maintained and a significant start can be made on recovering the parks, then DRC will be a premier ecotourism destination, as it once was.

International jet travelers usually arrive at Kinshasa, which has hotels, car rental and travel agents through which tours can be booked. Roads are poor (at this writing, it is impossible to cross DRC by road) so air travel, scheduled or chartered, using the country’s 40 internal airports and 150 landing strips, can be the only way to get around. Also, the Congo (or Zaire) River is navigable for 1,077 miles (1,734 km), and at least a short boat trip through some of Africa’s richest rain forest should not be missed.

Accommodations are spotty. Dry (sometimes just drier) seasons are December–February in the north, April–October in the south, wet most of the year at the equator.

More about the Reserves in Democratic Republic of Congo

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