June 7, 2010 / 3:06 PM / 9 years ago

Once a rebel haunt, Congo's Garamba opens to tourism

KINSHASA (Reuters) - The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Garamba National Park, once known as a haunt for militias and a vicious Ugandan rebel group, is open for tourism, the park’s main Western donor said.

Spain’s ambassador to Congo, Felix Costales, told Reuters in a weekend interview that Garamba had opened a tourist camp funded by Spain at the end of May, with 10 lodges, and that armed groups had been cleared from all parts of the 12,000 square km (4,600 square miles) reserve that are open to tourists.

“We are now in a situation in which we can easily save the park,” he said, suggesting that tourism would bring in the necessary funds and road access to monitor it.

Nestled in Congo’s northeast, on the border with Sudan, Garamba was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in Danger in 1996, largely because it houses 30 of the world’s last remaining white rhinos.

Its vast grasslands, forests and swampy depressions also housing hippos, elephants and giraffes, lost their tourist appeal around that time as Congo descended into chaos, leaving its wildlife prey to rampant poaching.

In 2005 Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) crossed into the park and set up camp after losing a Sudanese government-backed haven in neighbor South Sudan.

Costales said the rebel group — infamous for mutilating civilians and abducting children — no longer posed a threat, as operations by Congolese, Ugandan and U.N. troops in the past 18 months had uprooted them from Garamba.

Spain had spent about 250,000 euros ($300,000) last year making tracks and equipping and training park rangers.

French ambassador Pierre Jacquemot visited the park with Costales last month and came back declaring it safe.

Officials are hoping revived tourism can help save the park’s rare species from extinction at the hands of poachers.

Unlike the sometimes overcrowded game parks of Kenya, remote Garamba is only reachable by plane for most visitors.

“There are few places in the world that are still as pristine as Garamba,” Costales said.

Tour operators were considering trips combining Garamba and Epulu, home to the antelope-like okapi, and Virunga National Park, housing some of the last mountain gorillas.

Writing by Tim Cocks

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