Evidence of forest buffalo presence raises hopes for recovering wildlife populations in DRC

Camera traps capture images of buffalo in the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve after five years of monitoring.
A forest buffalo photographed with a camera trap in the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve, DRC. Photo by CIFOR/ICRAF

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Scientists have captured camera trap footage indicating the possible recovery of forest buffalo populations in the northern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo after a five-year search for the near locally extinct species without success.

At 5:35 a.m. on 24 May 2023, a heavily built forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus) with long, curved horns walked into the close frame of a camera trap set up by scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) in the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve.

The camera trap images lasted just 10 seconds, but they were the result of five years of work to assess and monitor land mammals present in the landscape. After capturing those 10 seconds of footage, the team of scientists returned to the relevant site and found footprints and tracks, suggesting the presence of four adult buffaloes and one younger one – a potential hotspot for buffaloes.

According to hunters, buffaloes used to be abundant in the area in the late 1990s, but were thought to be locally extinct due to high hunting levels, especially during the Congo civil wars, which came to an end in 2003.

The buffalo sighting took place within the framework of the project Formation, Recherche, Environnement dans la Tshopo (FORETS II) – which translates as Training, Research and Environment in the Tshopo. Funded by the European Union and implemented by CIFOR-ICRAF, the project aims to enhance biodiversity and ecosystem benefits with a view to boosting sustainable livelihoods in the Yangambi landscape.

“This discovery is very important as it may indicate that a recovery of wildlife populations is still possible in the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve as long as substantial support can be given to local communities living with wildlife, allowing the recently pictured buffalo family to grow into larger numbers,” said Nathalie van Vliet, a senior scientist on the project.

No proof of the buffalo species’ presence had been found over a five-year period of monitoring, even though a few hunters had mentioned that isolated buffaloes could cross the Aruwimi River and come into the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve. This was the most probable way through which they could find their way into the reserve, according to van Vliet.`

Footage of the buffalo captured with the camera trap. Photo by CIFOR/ICRAF

The CIFOR-ICRAF project team is currently rethinking effective strategies to ensure species population growth and also manage the human-wildlife conflict that may arise when land mammal species exist alongside human activity in the region.

Camera traps have been used by scientists in ecology and conservation for decades. Today, this technology is a ubiquitous tool that helps scientists understand species and improve their monitoring and conservation.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly around the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve, camera traps have served to identify – and capture direct evidence of – various protected or vulnerable species, including the endangered chimpanzee, three species of pangolins and the checkered elephant shrew.

The discovery of these species is fully consistent with the intended impacts of the FORETS II project, which includes the improved management of the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve and a reduction in the loss of plant and animal biodiversity in the region.

FORETS II is funded by the European Union and implemented by CIFOR-ICRAF in the Yangambi landscape in Tshopo Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now in its second phase, the project provides opportunities for policymakers, funders and communities to better understand the contribution that forests play in supporting local economies, health and well-being, as well as regional biodiversity through the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystem services.

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