Uganda Travel News

It was easy to walk through their postage stamp fields past smoky, cramped houses and understand the views of local framers. They were little value in the forest or its wildlife and they desperately needed more land to feed their growing families. They had nothing against the gorillas which they didn’t perceive as dangerous predators or even serious pests they just thought that gorillas could be saved somehow outside of the forest perhaps in a zoo. In the past big development projects had paid to clear the forest and provide land for more people. So now that northerners dominated Rwandan politics why not ask some foreign donors to pay for another round of park land conversion? It made sense to local politicians. It apparently made sense to the European development fund which supported another such scheme in early 1979.

CONSERVATION MEANS DIFFERENT things to different people .For some it is asking to a religion that attracts a passionate mix of true believers, missionaries and zealots. For others it is a more secular belief system that calls for human action to reinforce the intrinsic value of wildlife and wilderness. Many see in the term a mandate to use but not waste, valuable natural resources. As they define conservation in ways that cover the entire spectrum from strict preservation to sustainable use, conservationists set forth an equally broad range of related rights and responsibilities. This can be confusing for those who prefer their definitions and labels clear for others, the flexibility of its use reflects the power of the concept.

Conservation is also a science, it is an applied science that seeks to understand and resolve problems that diminish biological diversity and degrade natural ecosystems. As we enter the twenty first century the field is firmly grounded in the biological sciences yet is increasingly interdisciplinary in its scope. Ultimately the success of conservation science depends on the ability of its practitioners to move from the collection, integration and analysis of information to the identification and pursuit of concrete action steps to move from problem analysis to conflict resolution.

In the 1970s there was nothing like the current field of conservation biology nothing approaching an interdisciplinary conservation science. Most field research focused on animal behavior rather than more applied issues in wild life ecology .In Africa, most researchers concentrated on the savanna ecosystems of the East, while only a few individuals worked in the more demanding rain forest environments to the West. Almost no one studied human factors in conservation whenever they worked. In our effort to take an interdisciplinary approach to science one that looked at both [people and wildlife and then use our results to formulate a plan of action in the forests of Rwanda we were on our own.

By the end of our first eighteen months we had turned over many new pieces in the gorilla conservation puzzle and revealed a much clearer picture. Inside the park conditions were mixed. The total mountain gorilla population of only 260 individuals was highly vulnerable to extinction, especially under the extreme poaching pressure that we had witnessed firsthand. No more than thirty silverbacks made up the current male breeding pool, and these alpha males were primary targets for trophy hunters. On the more positive side, the steep population decline of the 1960s had been halted and the percentage of young gorillas was the highest it had been since Schaller’s initial study. The forest habitat retained a remarkable capacity to sustain the gorilla population despite the loss of nearly one third of all Virunga parkland since 1958.Food resources even seemed sufficient to support a much larger population though the gorillas would have to live on less land and at higher elevations. Although this mixed image gave us some hope the picture outside the park was far more troubling.

More than 100,000 farmers lived within five miles of the Parc des Volcans. Behind them millions more scratched out a living on shrinking plots of tired land. The park and its gorillas held no value to local Rwandans who saw only potential farm land under the green blanket of forest that towered above them. In endless battles with the powerful ministry of agriculture senior ORTPN staff were hard pressed to defend the value of a park that earned less than $7,000 in total entry fees in1978.Left un changed, these conditions would only encourage continued poaching and conversion. Our preoccupation was to change this equation, so heavily weighted toward extinction.

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