The Congo is a river of magic, mystery and awesome force. In its course it traverses almost 5,000 km through Earth’s second largest rainforest, home to endangered fauna such as forest elephants, bonobos, okapi, chimpanzees, and gorillas. Its might is such that its impression on the Atlantic Ocean extends for 800 km – nourishing the coastal waters of the South Atlantic and playing a key role in the global ocean carbon cycle.
The mystery of the Congo river stems not only from its folklore but, from a scientific perspective, from the comparative scarcity of information about the species it supports and their conservation status, as well as how current developments in the region are impacting the health of its ecosystems. We do know that the Congo Basin is of global importance for its freshwater fish diversity, hosting at least 686 species. There is also a high rate of endemism amongst the freshwater biodiversity of the Congo River, more than 80% of species are found nowhere else. Whilst there was a significant effort to survey the biodiversity of the Congo River in 2009 and 2010, there has been little investigation since and these studies have been mainly about new taxonomic discovery rather than understanding the status of these species and how development in the river basin is changing this.
Map showing the density of freshwater species in the Congo River Basin © IUCN
The Congo River does not face immediate threats from damming in much of its upper and middle course, but it does have the greatest hydropower potential of any African river. Most attention has focused on the prospect of the Inga III dam’s construction, a dam which may set the scene for the future of the Congo. The rest of the river system has received even less conservation attention.
Our objective for work on the Congo River is to build the capacity of local community-based organisations to monitor, manage, and conserve this great river system. Not only is the river a centre of freshwater biodiversity and endemism, but it also supports thousands of communities who live along its banks – the people of the Congo Basin get around one third of their total protein intake from inland waters (Snoeks pers comms. 2012). Its sustainable management is therefore key not only to conserving its flora and fauna but is also intimately tied to the lives and livelihoods of rural people
As a result of our Congo Basin Programme (and the Forest and Freshwater Portfolios before that), Synchronicity Earth already has experience of working in the region, as well as a network of partners and advisers who can further help to develop our understanding of the most pressing needs and the key organisations to support. The geographic overlap with our Congo Basin Programme also means there will be opportunities to work more synergistically with efforts to conserve the local forest environment and advance community rights. Given the intimacy of the relationship between the people, the river and the forest in this region, this will be of significant value to the objectives of both programmes.