Deep in the heart of the Republic of Congo lies the remarkable Odzala-Kokoua National Park, encompassing an expansive 13,500km2 of dense forest. Odzala is also a crucial stronghold for forest elephants in Central Africa. An estimated 8,000 forest elephants roam these dense forests, along with other unique species such as tree climbing crocodiles, western lowland gorilla and bongo (forest antelope).
Since 2010, the park has been managed through a Public-Private Partnership agreement between African Parks and the Congolese Government. Under the stewardship of African Parks, Odzala has made significant strides in combating elephant poaching across its vast expanse and since 2015, the Elephant Crisis Fund (ECF) has been a crucial partner in Odzala’s conservation journey.
In May 2023, Save the Elephants’ Dr. Chris Thouless and Dr. Lucy King of the ECF spent five days with African Parks in Odzala-Kokoua, to assess the impact of ECF funding and to discuss future conservation plans.
Their journey began in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo. With a possibly unique geographical twinning of capital cities, Brazzaville is positioned on the bank of the River Congo, overlooking Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the opposite bank.
The two hour flight to Odzala-Kokoua showcased the stunning landscapes that characterize the park. During their visit, Chris and Lucy spent time with different Odzala teams and witnessed significant conservation milestones achieved by African Parks with ECF support.
Key initiatives such as bolstering ranger numbers and training, expanding aerial and river patrols, elephant collaring operations and expanding the network of roads and bases have all played pivotal roles in reducing instances of elephant poaching.
The result has been a notable decline in the annual confiscation of ivory, a decrease in the discovery of poached elephant carcasses, and the dismantling of numerous wildlife trafficking cells operating on the park’s periphery. Despite these achievements, poaching remains an ongoing threat to Odzala’s elephants.
The implementation of Earthranger, a comprehensive domain awareness system, has enhanced the monitoring and protection of the park and elephants. InReach devices have been deployed, and successful elephant collaring efforts have resulted in valuable data on elephant movements.
The ECF has also supported the acquisition of a Savanna aircraft, which plays a crucial role in aerial monitoring and tracking of elephants in the dense forest.
ECF’s contributions extend beyond law enforcement to projects addressing human-elephant conflict (HEC). In 2021, the ECF awarded the first human-elephant coexistence grant to Odzala, supporting the trial of different elephant deterrent methods in villages around the boundary of the park. This is one of the largest HEC trial sites for forest elephants, providing valuable data for analyzing and assessing the effectiveness of different methods including chili-fabric fencing, beehive fencing, trenches, strobe light barriers, sound barriers, electric fences, and community quick response teams.
Results so far suggest that beehive fences, flashing lights and farm patrols may be less impactful in these thick rain forest conditions than in open savannah. However, chili fences, trenches and electric fencing have shown positive results. Trials will continue for the remainder of the year.
Engaging with local communities is a vital aspect of conservation in Odzala. The team attended community meetings and interacted with ‘Eco Teams’, which monitor bushmeat offtake and fish catches. These engagements aim to promote sustainable practices and foster a deeper understanding of the park’s conservation objectives.
The trip also highlighted the importance of research and monitoring in Odzala, achieved with partial support from the ECF. Camera trap surveys and quarterly aerial surveys provide valuable data on vegetation, animal presence, and populations. Collaring data has proven to be crucial in the efforts to combat poaching by offering valuable insights into the key ‘bais’ favored by elephants, and their movements through Odzala and into nearby forestry concessions.
The trip to Odzala-Kokoua National Park provided valuable insights into the conservation efforts undertaken by African Parks and supported by the ECF thanks to your generous donations. The collaboration between African Parks and local communities has resulted in significant progress in safeguarding the park’s unique ecosystem. Despite the challenges posed by Odzala’s size, proximity to human settlements and illegal mines, African Parks is making strides in consolidating active management and improving access to enforce park regulations effectively. With continued support from the ECF and others, Odzala can serve as a beacon of conservation success in Central Africa.