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2022 Continuation Funding
2020 Continuation Funding
2013 Whitley Award
John Kahekwa Democratic Republic of the Congo Terrestrial
Community action for gorilla conservation

Winner of the Whitley Award donated by Goldman Sachs

In a region in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo that has suffered from what has been named the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War, conservationist John Kahekwa strives to protect endangered Eastern Lowland Gorillas and other species which share the land with millions of people who suffer from extreme poverty and an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

As a child an important role model for John was his uncle Adrien Deschryver, the first person in the world to habituate Eastern Lowland Gorillas to human visitors and the co-founder of Kahuzi Biega National Park. John’s close relationship with his uncle led him to dedicate his own life’s work to nature conservation.

This region, which possesses one of the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet, with vast areas of unexplored wilderness, has been providing refuge, protection and resources to thousands of refugees, poachers, illegal miners and various militants for over fifteen years. Very few scientists and conservation NGOs are able to operate in the region due to the continued armed conflict and very little scientific information about this habitat’s current status is available.

With 30 years of experience working in the field with gorillas and other wildlife, as well as implementing successful community conservation programmes, John Kahekwa was formerly Chief Gorilla Habituation Officer of the Kahuzi Biega National Park, which was one of the backdrops for the iconic ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ film. Now, as Founder and Managing Director of the Pole Pole Foundation, John Kahekwa wishes to take his organisation’s experience and expertise and replicate its success elsewhere, with the goal of protecting the entire home range of the Eastern Lowland Gorilla. His ambitious project is based on three pillars: understanding the communities’ needs and opinions about nature conservation; implementing conservation education programmes; and providing local communities with economic alternatives that will enable them to refrain from exploiting their precious natural resources.

John’s Whitley Award winning project aims to:

  • Understand the communities’ needs and opinions about nature conservation.
  • Implement conservation education programmes.
  • Provide local communities with economic alternatives that will enable them to stop unsustainably exploiting precious natural resources.

Why it matters:

  •  The number of Eastern lowland gorillas is though to have declined by 80-90% in the last five years.
  • Gorilla centred ecotourism could bring livelihood opportunities in a peaceful DRC, as seen in Uganda.
  • The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world.



Project: Anti-poaching protection of the Grauer’s Gorilla in DRC’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park
£12,000 over 1 year

The Kahuzi-Biega National Park is home to the Critically Endangered Grauer’s gorilla and is on the World Heritage Site’s ‘danger list’. Since the civil war in 1996 its balance has tipped: poaching, logging and human pressure on the park’s natural resources have increased so dramatically that the gorilla population has plummeted by 40%. Patrols have dwindled due to lack of supplies, enabling even more illegal activity; rangers now cover less ground, access limited areas and are unable to detect or reach new criminal hotspots. Additionally, impoverished communities surrounding the park depend on charcoal for cooking and timber for building materials, adding further pressure to the park’s precious resources.

Continuation Funding will bring much needed support to this underfunded area. John and his team aim to increase law enforcement through foot and technology in both the highlands and park’s eco-corridor. Well-equipped rangers and drones will relieve some of the immediate dangers posed to the Grauer’s gorilla, reducing the number of snare traps and suppressing poaching rates. Additionally, much needed data will be collected on this great ape’s population and other wildlife, which will inform management plans for their long-term conservation.


Above and beyond: Securing the Grauer’s gorillas’ last stronghold
£35,000 over 1 year

The Kahuzi-Biega National Park (KBNP) hosts some of Central Africa’s highest levels of biodiversity and is home to the Critically Endangered Grauer’s gorilla. It is also on the World Heritage Site’s ‘danger list’. Since the civil war in 1996, food insecurity, poverty, and unsustainable development have led to increased human pressures on the park’s natural resources, with poaching and logging seeing gorilla populations decline by as much as 40%.

Patrols in the park have also decreased in recent years due to lack of supplies and equipment for rangers, allowing illegal activities and poaching to persist. Rangers are only able to cover limited areas of the park and are unable to reach other hotspots of illegal activities beyond those known by park authorities.

To combat these challenges, John and his team at The Pole Pole Foundation will increase law enforcement and surveillance in two key areas of KBNP – the highlands and the eco-corridor. Better equipping rangers on foot and providing additional drones to support patrol efforts, John’s team will increase coverage to suppress poaching rates and secure wildlife. This project will also support local youth initiatives for self-sustainable development of communities living alongside KBNP to improve socio-economic conditions and build trust in conservation initiatives. Through this approach, John and his team will reduce human pressure on KBNP and the gorillas which reside there, while increasing the capacity of ranger teams to patrol the park and safeguard its wildlife. With decades of experience working in and around the park, and an Earthshot prize finalist in 2021, John is well-placed to deliver results in this challenging and important landscape.