Almost three quarters of a century after its inception this massive park is a mere ghost of its former glory. Most of its wildlife has been poached out, park buildings are in ruins, and the rangers are in rags; what they are lacking in training and equipment, they make up for in spirit and resolve. To paraphrase a colleague here, it’s a miracle that these abandoned rangers continue to find the courage to carry on protecting what is left of this park. The overall sense one has is that this park has been forgotten and neglected in time and space.
The 15th of May 1939 marked the creation of Africa's largest national park - Upemba. Back then, the park covered an area of 17,000 square kilometers - nearly half the size of Switzerland! Picture deep gorges and waterfalls, marshes and lakes forming a striking contrast to its vast expanse of savannah stretched out under an immense blue sky... It boasted one of the most magnificent landscapes in Africa, with its large herds of elephant, buffalo and zebra, as well as healthy populations of black rhino, lion, cheetah and wild dog.
Frankfurt Zoological Society has recently launched a new initiative working with the Congolese wildlife authority and local communities to revive their forgotten national parks. Our vision for Upemba is ambitious: we want the park to become a valuable resource for the Congolese people; a source of wealth and stability, for the sake of the people, but also for the wildlife within it.
Thanks to funding from the European Union we will be working non-stop over the next two years in an effort to bring this park back to life… And what better time to start than on its birthday! Our team is now on the ground building a small camp in the park that will serve as our field base. A month from now we start rehabilitating the park station, and will then start training and equipping the Congolese rangers, providing them with the tools necessary to protect and manage the park in the years to come.
One of our most important tasks will be reconciling the needs of the park with those of neighbouring communities. Poverty levels are high and many children don’t have the privilege of going to school. We will build schools and dispensaries, and nurture a harmonious relationship between the park and its people. We need to work hard and fast. One year from now we will start bringing back wildlife...
Imagine a day when rhinos, lions, elephants and zebras once again roam the grassy savannahs of Upemba. As we close our eyes and blow out the park’s 73 candles, we envisage Upemba flourishing alongside its people, mutually benefiting one another. The challenges that we face are numerous, and are rolled out before us like a giant obstacle course. But we must try and safeguard a bright future for the Congo - for its people, and for its exceptional biodiversity. Not only is it possible; but it’s also our duty.
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