According to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the new plant—Dorstenia luamensis, which was discovered in 2012 and described last month in the journal PhotoKeys—was named after the Luama Katanga Reserve. The little-known protected area—located near Lake Tanganyika, the world's second-deepest freshwater lake—was established in 1947, 13 years before the current Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) gained its independence from Belgium and long before the civil wars that plagued the region in the 1990s and 2000s. Unfortunately those civil wars had a long-lasting impact on the reserve: At some point during the conflicts government officials incorrectly mapped the Luama Katanga, placing it about 50 kilometers from where it was originally established. You can see the difference in the map below:
This mapping mistake means the fernlike plant—which grows on just a few rock faces near waterfalls—is not in the park for which it is named but in an area that is being heavily degraded by deforestation and cattle ranching. A good portion of what should be the reserve has also been carved out by mining concessions. The region is also home to 1,400 chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) as well as numerous other wildlife species. All of those plants and animals could now be further endangered because they are not in legally protected habitat.
The most unusual part of all of this is that the WCS uncovered the mapping error a year ago and lobbied the DRC to return to the official boundaries of the reserve before the paper was published. No action has been taken, so they have now gone public with the issue during this week's IUCN World Parks Congress in an attempt to put pressure on the DRC, says Andy Plumptre, head of WCS’s Albertine Rift Program. "The moral of this story," WCS vice president of conservation strategy James Deutsch said in a prepared release, "is that keeping track of parks—and especially getting maps and boundaries correct—matters hugely for biodiversity. The call to action here is to fix the records and reprotect the reserve before this unique plant and all the biodiversity it contains, including 1,400 chimpanzees, are destroyed."
This is obviously an extreme example but it's also typical of protected areas and nature reserves around the world. Borders for these important conservation zones are rarely adequately marked and can actually be quite porous. People often live right alongside these parks and flow in and out of them with no real understanding that they have crossed a line into so-called conservation territories. We can't put walls around every protected zone, so adequately mapping and identifying them is essential. Hopefully the DRC will step up before this so-called reserve, which obviously hasn't been adequately monitored, let alone mapped, disappears into memory.
Photos and illustrations: Chimpanzee, by Andrew Plumptre. Dorstenia luamensis, by Miguel Leal. Reserve map by WCS