Creation of the first National Park in Africa, National Park Albert
History of the Park
The Europeans discovered the region of Lake Kivu in the beginning of 1860 through topographic exploration missions. These missions had as political goal to increase the colonial territories. However they also increased the scientific knowledge on the flora and fauna of the region. At the same time animal hunting was practiced in the region to provide food for the members of the missions, the military, for people working on the farms, in the mines and in road construction. Trophy hunting also started during those years.
In 1902, a German expedition headed by Robert von Beringe, captain in the imperial army of German Eastern-Africa, brought a gorilla specimen (Gorilla gorilla) with them to the Museum of Berlin. Later this specimen would be described as a new sub-species, Gorilla gorilla beringei. This scientific discovery would attract many interested researchers until the 1920’s. Demands for hunting licenses for gorillas were submitted, in ever increasing numbers, by foreign museums and scientific institutes to the Belgian Ministry of Colonies.
Prince William of Sweden organised in 1920 a scientific expedition to the region, which would bring a better understanding of the lives of the gorillas. He introduces his desire to create a protected area in Kivu to conserve its soils, fauna and flora to the Belgian authorities. In the same year, another expedition was send to Kivu by the American Museum of Natural History of New York, directed by the naturalist and taxidermist Carl Akeley. The main goal of the expedition was to capture a group of gorilla for the faunal hall of the museum for public education and scientific research. After its return the mission concluded that there was a low presence of gorillas in the region and a risk of extinction of this sub-species. In reply to the pressure put on them by the publications and the conferences, the Ministry of Colonies took measures to protect the fauna of the region. There were more and more demands for hunting licenses by scientific institutes and private hunters which also put pressure.
Two hunting reserves were therefore created in the Kivu District:
- Firstly, the Albert Reserve (24 February 1923) according to the suggestions of William of Sweden, between the river Rutshuru and the south of the lake Edouard.
- Second, at the North-East of Lake Kivu between the mountain Sabinyo and the catholic mission of Tongres Sainte Marie (now Rugari).
The preoccupations about the future of the endangered faunal and floral species of the Congo got a lot of attention from certain scientific and political communities. King Albert, well known for his passion for the protection and conservation of nature, got involved. The King, despite the reluctance from the Ministry of Colonies, enables the concretization of Akeley's project of establishing a gorilla reserve. However he doesn't limit it to only gorillas, he enlarges it to all fauna and flora that make up the natural beauty of the Rwindi region, and also introduces the word « national » in the denomination of the new protected area. The faunal and floral reserve named "National Park Albert" was established by the decree of 21 April 1925.
This Park, now called National Park Virunga, was situated on the equator in East Congo, and stretched itself along the borders with Uganda and Rwanda. This first African park had a surface of 20.000 hectares. Hunting of gorillas and other species was completely forbidden, except in the case of self-defence. The delimitation of the park was done in an imprecise and rough way, without actual knowledge of its physical, human or economic geography. Its temporary borders were acknowledged by the general governor of the colonies by his decree of 10 July 1925.
In 1928, Minister of the Colonies, Mister Marcel Houtart, financed two missions to establish the borders of the PNA and improve the topographic, botanical and zoological knowledge. These American scientific missions were headed the first by ornithologist James Chapin and the second by Carl Akeley.
The results of these terrain studies lead to the decree of 9 July 1929, which establish the autonomous institution « National Park Albert ». This decree extended the surface of the Park to 190.000 ha.
The Park consisted of 4 sectors:
- Central (core, extinguished volcanoes and Sabinyo)
- Occidental (zone of active volcanoes, Nyamuragira and Njyiragongo till the norhest point of Lake Kivu)
- Oriental (zone of volcanoes Gahinga and Muhabura, respectively situated on the border with Rwanda and in the South of the Ugandan border)
- Septentrional (ancient reserve to the South of Lake Edward) to which the annexed territories were added, one stretching itself around the central and oriental sectors, and another to the south of the septentrional sector, it had the same surface but was densely populated and exploited by the river communities.
Nine years after the creation of the Park, its management was given to the authority of the « Institut des Parcs Nationaux du Congo Belge » (IPNCB) which was created by decree 26 November 1934. The management would be organised around three axes :
- The protection of fauna and flora.
- Development of scientific research.
- The promotion of controlled tourism in well-defined zones, seen as a way of financing the scientific research.
Another decree, approved at the same date, reduced the borders of the PNA, by giving back certain zones of the reserve, conform the situation before 1929. This was done in order to avoid land conflicts between the PNA and the local population and to exercise a total protection of the remaining integral reserve in the populated areas. At this point National Park Albert was made up from a single unit that was united from the septentrional to the occidental zone with a surface of 390 000 ha. The following year, the decree of 12 November 1935 introduced a new delineation and increased the surface of the Park to 470 000 by including in the north all Belgian waters of Lake Edward.
From 1925 to 1934, Conservator René Hemeleers, agent of the Colony, was responsible for the surveillance of the reserves and Ramus Hoier was responsible for the administrative tasks. Since 1934, the management was given to only one person, the conservator Henri Hackers. He was employed directly by the Institute of the National Parks of Belgian Congo (IPNCB) and no longer worked for the Belgian Colony.
During the war of 1940-45, the National Park became detached from the decision-makers of the IPNCB in Brussels, and the administration was taken over by the colonial and local government. This reversal meant a return to the situation before 1925 as the colonial authorities tolerated certain (land)claims of the local population. This threatened and weakened the autonomy of National Park Albert. After the war, because of the need to return to a more viable situation, several inspection tours were made in Congo. These studied more radical actions. As a result pressure was put on the colony to resolve issues related to the rights of the indigenous and the fisheries within and close to the boundaries of National Park Albert.
In 1933, the International Conference for the Protection of African Fauna and Flora established the notion of preserving natural resources as "common heritage of humanity". The status of the ANP as an "integral nature reserve" was, in this way, reaffirmed by the commitment of the leaders to maintain and safeguard the absolute integrity of the chosen territories. They encouraged the reduction of human intervention to a minimum, not only for aesthetic and tourist reasons, but also because they considered this reserve to be a natural heritage to be safeguarded for the progress of scientific, economic and utilitarian knowledge.
Scientific research within the ANP was to move in two directions: establishing a systematic and multidisciplinary inventory of the territories on the one hand and on the other hand studying problems of general scientific interest, for which the park presented favourable conditions that were sometimes inexistent elsewhere (Languy & al., 2006). Therefore, during the same year 1933, the administrative commission of the ANP (then under the chairmanship of His Royal Highness Monseigneur le Duc De Brabant) which in 1934 became the commission of the IPNCB, took the decision to send a first scientific mission to Albert National Park. This mission was given by the Ministry of the Colonies to G. F. De Witte. Other missions were set up in the following years under the leadership of the Institute of National Parks.
The missions and their objectives:
The mission of G. F. de Witte (1933-1935) mainly turned to the first direction, the establishment of inventories. Its aim was to study the ethology and taxonomy of the herpetological fauna in the National Park. Secondly, it was responsible for assembling collections of Fish, Birds, Small Mammals and Invertebrates, creating a herbarium and gathering photographic documentation of the fauna and flora.
The second mission (1935-1936), under direction of H. Damas, focused on the inventory and had the goal of researching hydrobiology in the Kivu, Edouard and Ndagala lakes.
The third mission (1933-1936), by P. Schumacher was of a very different category.
It did anthropological research (Pygmy).
The fourth mission (1937-1938), of J. Lebrun, was interested in botany.
The fifth mission (1937-1938), directed by S. Frechkop was dedicated to the study of mammals.
The sixth mission (1938-1940), by J. Verhoogen, studied the volcanoes of Nyamuragia.
The Seventh mission (1950), under direction of J. De Heinzelin De Braucourt, did research in Paleo-tectonics, zoology and anthropology.
The eighth mission (1950), of A. Meyer, was dedicated to volcanic research.
The nineth mission (1957-1961), of J. Verschuren and F. Bourlière studied de mammals.
The means implemented to carry out these missions came from the financial aid granted by the IPNCB and the National Fund for Scientific Research.
Each mission was followed by the analysis of the collections gathered during the study and the publication of the results. These missions were the subject of publications (1st series and 2nd series) from 1937 onwards, in the form of numerous fascicles.
De Witte G. F., 1937. Fascicule 1: Introduction. Institut des Parcs Nationaux du Congo Belge, Bruxelles, pp. 3- 4.
- Van Schuylenbergh, 2006: Le Parc National Albert : la naissance du premier parc national d'Afrique (1925-1960) dans Languy M., De Merode E., 2006. Virunga, survie du premier parc d'Afrique. Lannoo, pp. 62-67.