Protecting Biodiversity in the Gombe National Park

Protecting biodiversity is a matter of developing healthy relationships between people and the environments they live in.

Chimpanzees

Buffer zones and habitat corridors in combination with protected wildlife areas allow animals to move between protected areas safely, protecting biodiversity and genetic diversity without requiring vast tracts of protected land.

Photo by Fotolia/Impala

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Protecting the Wild (Island Press, 2014), edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist and Tom Butler, offers a fearless argument for the protection of the natural world. An international cast of prominent scientists, activists and conservation practitioners affirms that parks, wilderness areas and other reserves are indispensable in protecting biodiversity, ecological processes and evolutionary potential — and are ultimately crucial to human well-being. The following essay by Jane Goodall is from “Caring for People and Valuing Forests in Africa.”

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So often, as I travel around the world, I pay homage to those forward-thinking individuals who in the 1800s had the foresight, because of their love of the natural world, to urge governments to set aside areas of wilderness for protection. The first national park in the world was Yellowstone, created in 1872, and gradually other areas in North America and around the world were given protected status. If we did not have networks of conservation areas the natural world would be even more devastated than it already is.

I have spent a good deal of time in East Africa’s national parks and reserves, and I briefly visited quite a number in the United States, Canada, Australia, and various Asian and Latin American countries. I am most familiar with habitats set aside to protect areas of forest. A central part of the mission of the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) is to conserve the great apes and other primates. And this, of course, means conserving the forests where they live.

Forests are the habitat of a great wealth of diverse animal and plant species. For example, the forest of the Congo Basin, the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest, is home to over 10,000 species of plants, 1,000 species of birds, 400 species of mammals, and three of the world’s four species of great apes. The situation is similar in the Amazon Basin and in the great rainforests of Asia. It is shocking to realize that the destruction of these habitats, as the chain saws move into one area after another, is leading to the local or total extinction of species every day. And so those areas that have been set aside to protect forests and their biodiversity are critically important.

The Gombe National Park

My own work has been in the Gombe National Park on the eastern shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. When I arrived in 1960 there was all but unbroken forest surrounding the lake and the chimpanzees of Gombe could move in and out of their tiny 23-square-mile (37-square-kilometer) national park. But by the mid-1980s the trees outside the park were almost all gone. The land had been overfarmed and the soil was losing its fertility. Farmers, looking for new land for their crops, turned to ever-steeper and more unsuitable hillsides. Without tree cover, more and more of the thin layer of topsoil would wash away with every heavy rain, causing terrible erosion and silting up the streams. There were more people living in the villages around the park than the land could support—the result not only of the population growth we have seen around the world since 1960 but also of an influx of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi. It was clear that these people, economically very poor, were struggling to survive and cutting down the last of their forests in their desperate efforts to grow crops to feed their families or earn a livelihood through charcoal production. The situation was desperate. Surely, only if we helped the people would it be possible to protect the chimpanzees and their habitat.

And so, in 1994, with a small grant from the European Union, JGI initiated TACARE (or “TakeCare,” the Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education project), a program to improve the lives of the people in the villages surrounding the park. From the start it was a holistic program, and over the years we have proved that an integrated approach to poverty alleviation is what works. We selected a team of local Tanzanians who gained the cooperation of the villagers by respecting and addressing their needs and priorities. These were: increased food production (accomplished through restoration of fertility to the overused farmland—without the use of chemical fertilizers), improved health facilities, and better education for their children (accomplished with the support of the local Tanzanian government). We encouraged the establishment of wood lots comprised of fast-growing species close to the villages, and we introduced fuel-efficient stoves. We started micro-credit programs (especially for women) for environmentally sustainable projects of their choice, such as tree nurseries, and we provide scholarships for girls to stay in school through puberty. We also introduced hygienic latrines that afford privacy, and we provide sanitary supplies. All around the world, family size has dropped as women have become empowered and better educated. In each village we have trained volunteers who provide family planning information.

Developing a Forest Regeneration Plan

In 2008 we helped the villagers to draw up land use management plans (required by the government) using cutting-edge geospatial mapping technologies (with support from Esri, DigitalGlobe, and Google Earth) to create high-resolution maps. And, because of the good relations we had built up with the villagers, they agreed to set aside, for forest regeneration, a buffer zone surrounding Gombe National Park. Within this buffer zone—a designated village forest reserve—there can be no hunting or tree felling, although limited access does allow for foraging for medicinal plants and mushrooms, beekeeping, and gathering dead wood. Stretching along the peaks of the Rift Escarpment, this buffer zone also protects the watershed and thus the water supply to the villages. Over the past ten years new trees have grown from seeds and from the stumps left in the ground, and many of these have reached heights of over 20 feet so that the chimpanzees of Gombe can, once again, move out of the park when certain fruits ripen in the buffer zone.

It is not enough to conserve a forest and its wildlife when, as happens increasingly, it is disconnected from other forested areas. It is necessary to develop corridors of habitat to link areas of forest so that animals can move between protected areas and thus maintain genetic diversity. Because of the success of TACARE—and with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Pritzker Foundation, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)—we have been able to extend our work to other villages, some of which have set aside land for reforestation that will form contiguous corridors of forest reserves.

Interconnected Wild Areas

Most recently, with grants from USAID and Norad, we have been able to work with villages close to a large area of intact forest in the Ugala Region to the south, home to more than 600 (possibly as many as 1,000) chimpanzees. At present there is no legal protection for this important (and very beautiful) habitat, but JGI is hoping that, with the cooperation of the local government, the area can be officially gazetted as Local Authority Forest Reserve, managed by the district authorities. Additional contiguous patches of forest within village boundaries will become Village Forest Reserves.

Meanwhile, we have been training volunteer forest monitors, at least one from each of the 52 villages where JGI now works. Collecting data using android smartphones and tablets donated by Google Earth Outreach, these monitors patrol the newly restored forest areas, recording illegal activities and documenting the progress of reforestation. They report their findings to their village governments, and all information is sent immediately to Google Cloud Storage, from which it can be downloaded for analysis by JGI and our partners. The important thing is that these forest monitors have been empowered—it is they who have selected what should be recorded based on their indigenous knowledge. They have chosen 30 different types of human activity which they believe can threaten the forest. And these volunteers monitor 20 species of animals. Of course they note each time they either see or hear a chimpanzee or see a chimpanzee nest. It is in this way that we know there are almost as many chimpanzees outside as within protected forest areas—vital information for us as we—along with the villagers—devise plans to protect these endangered apes. Thus today these villagers have become effective stewards of the land, helping to restore not only their own environment, but also the forest habitat of the chimpanzees.

Protecting Biodiversity Across Africa

JGI has initiated similar programs in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Republic of Congo, and Senegal. In all these programs there is an emphasis on creating and protecting corridors to link areas of protected forest. In Senegal we are hoping to create a cross-border national park to include the forests, rich in biodiversity, of Guinea. And we are just beginning to develop a similar project to protect the forest reserves and national parks of Burundi.

The days in Africa when wilderness areas could receive total protection from national legislation alone are vanishing. In most areas, ranger forces are underpaid and poorly equipped, making them vulnerable to bribes from poachers. And corruption within the government is often widespread. The horrific increase in poaching of elephants and rhinos, for their tusks and horns, is often the result of international criminal cartels. Even in a well-financed national park like Kruger in South Africa, heavily armed poachers fly in by helicopter, kill a rhino, dig out its horn, and fly away. This is driven by the high price fetched by rhino horn, principally for the Vietnamese market. The biggest importer of illegal ivory is China. The second-largest is the United States.

In some countries, including developed countries, even when an area is designated a national park, the government may permit road-building or the exploitation of natural resources, such as oil, gas, minerals, or timber. Forest reserves have been sacrificed for agricultural developments. National budgets seldom place the protection of wilderness high on their list of priorities, so it is often necessary for conservationists to provide financial incentives. Ecotourism can bring in foreign exchange but, especially in forested areas, this will not immediately deliver large payments comparable to selling or leasing concession for commercial development. And tourism itself can be destructive if not properly controlled.

Another way to show that protecting rather than destroying forests can be economically beneficial is by assigning a “monetary” value to living trees and compensating governments, landowners, and villagers for conserving. Forests are the lungs of the world: They take in carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and release oxygen. The CO2 is stored as carbon not only in the trees but also in forest soils. As forests are cut down and burned, thousands of tons of CO2 are released, and it is this, along with the burning of fossil fuels, that is a major component of the greenhouse gases that are causing the rise in global temperatures. Thus protecting and restoring forests is one of the most efficient and least expensive ways to slow down global warming.

Successful Wilderness Protection Involves Everyone

Lengthy deliberations in many countries resulted in the United Nations program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) in developing countries. The REDD+ program recognizes the importance of poverty alleviation, sustainable forest management, and the conservation of biodiversity, as well as protection of the forest for carbon sequestration. REDD+ assigns a value for the carbon stored in different kinds of forests and forest soils, so that appropriate compensation can be paid to those who protect their forests. And compliance can be verified through high-tech satellite imagery. It is money from a pilot REDD+ program in Tanzania which is enabling us to work in the Ugala Region, as we try to establish a protected forest to save the chimpanzees there.

It is increasingly being realized how extremely important it is for the preservation of national parks and reserves to have the goodwill and support of villagers in the vicinity. Legal protected status for such areas is essential, but it is not always enough: In some cases, the buy-in of the local people is key. Sharing some percentage of the revenue from tourism and providing jobs as guides, drivers, and employees of visitor facilities is one way, and many programs similar to our TACARE have been introduced to help local communities. But I believe that the most crucial aspect is for the local people to develop a sense of pride in their park, and a sense of ownership. In Uganda a planned deal by the government to sell a forest reserve that would have become a sugar cane plantation was halted as a result of successful demonstrations by the people.

Protecting Biodiversity in the Future

Finally, we must try to ensure that new generations grow up to become better stewards than we have been. JGI’s Roots & Shoots program, founded in Tanzania in 1991, aims to help young people understand the problems facing them and to empower them to take action. As of 2014, the Roots & Shoots program has a presence in more than 130 countries—with about 150,000 groups (a group is anything from two members to a whole school). Roots & Shoots empowers young people of all ages (ranging from preschool-aged through university and beyond) to play an active role in addressing ecological and social challenges. Each group chooses for itself three projects to make this a better world: one to help people, one to help other animals, and one to help the environment. Everywhere young people are learning respect for animals and the natural world. Some are lucky enough to be able to visit national parks and reserves to see and experience for themselves the wilderness. Of course, this is not always possible, but there are other ways for children to spend time in nature, even if it is only a city park. Botanical gardens are great places to experience the wonders of the plant kingdom and zoos are getting better and better at educating visitors of all ages about the importance of conservation. When people acquire a deeper understanding of the natural world, and of the ways their future is being destroyed, they are more likely to care and to want to help to save what is left.

The wilderness is under increasing threat: National parks, wilderness reserves, and other conservation areas are more important than ever before. Each of us must do what we can both to ensure that those existing, already-protected areas remain so and to encourage the creation and future protection of new ones whenever possible.


Reprinted with permission from Protecting the Wild: Parks and Wilderness, the Foundation for Conservation edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist and Tom Butler and published by Island Press, 2015.