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SOS Rhino : In the News : Opinion: Saving Wildlife in Peril

Opinion: Saving Wildlife in Peril


By Patrick J. Bergin, Ph.D.

WASHINGTON, DC, April 15, 2003 (ENS) - The recent report by Dr. Peter D. Walsh on the significant declines in gorilla and chimpanzee populations in Gabon and the Republic of Congo shows that once again the conservation community is forced to rely on a crisis mode to harness international support for the protection of endangered species. We only need recall the outcries over the piles of ivory from elephant poaching outbreaks in the 1980s to recognize this cycle of alarm and reactive intervention. Hopefully this demand for attention will prove as effective for the lowland gorilla and chimpanzee as it did for the African elephant. Patrick Bergin is president of the African Wildlife Foundation (Photo courtesy AWF)

However, in the flurry of coverage following Dr. Walsh's report, I feel two critical pieces are missing from the debate as it reads now. First, we must place a far greater priority in setting aside and protecting significant pieces of land to ensure the survival of any species, and second, the livelihoods and well being of African people must not be excluded by any wildlife conservation objective on the continent.

Erosion of the size and quality of habitat is the single greatest threat to most African species, greater than poaching, greater than hunting for the bush meat trade, and still greater than the many unknowns relating to the Ebola virus.

True national parks are valuable anchors to the conservation of Africa's magnificent species, but they cannot just be small islands of habitat. Even if the total acreages set aside for conservation are significant, animal and plant populations are less likely to survive in disconnected smaller spaces than in one large block. Therefore, to the extent possible, large blocks and entire ecosystems must be set aside and resources must be invested in safeguarding them to keep habitats, feeding, and breeding grounds intact.
Cooperation with African communities and people is imperative. In parks and reserves, investing in human and resource capacities ensures that staff has the tools and training they need to enforce surveillance and anti-poaching measures.

As wildlife rarely limits itself only to national park grounds, the enforcement, support and intervention cannot stop at park boundaries either. Work and outreach must be done to involve local communities.

In the case of the lowland gorilla, the chimpanzee, and other targets of the bush meat trade, this means finding viable protein substitutes for human diets, improving pastoral and agricultural productivity, and promoting alternative income generators to reduce the dependence on and give alternatives to the profitability of hunting these species.

Two highly endangered relatives of the lowland gorillas and chimpanzees provide illustration of the issues of protecting large landscapes and balancing human livelihoods.

For the bonobo, a lesser known relative of chimps that ranges across Gabon into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), not a single acre of their habitat presently falls inside the border of a national park. The conservation community can only rely on and work with local communities to find value in and protect this species. Mountain gorilla (Photo courtesy AWF)

And for the most endangered ape in the world, the mountain gorilla of Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC, the African Wildlife Foundation, working with partners, has invested in the International Gorilla Program (IGCP) to create one of the most heralded successes on behalf of a species in history.

Thanks to IGCP's concerted investment in parks authorities and local communities, the mountain gorilla population has registered a 10 percent growth rate over the last decade. This comes in the face of unthinkable genocide, warfare, refugee crises, and a national park being laid with land mines.

It is essential that these debates and the actions that follow on behalf of the lowland gorilla and chimpanzee must exceed the research outposts and offices of scientists and turn into meaningful, well planned and implemented strategies that are compatible with the livelihoods of Africans.

Our collective inaction that would lead to only remnant populations is not acceptable, but so is ignoring the valuable role that Africans can play in safeguarding their land and the important, beautiful wildlife species that share it.

{Patrick J. Bergin is the president of the African Wildlife Foundation. He spent the last 14 years living in Africa and working in community based conservation.}

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