20 March 2008

Rwanda: Conservation Effort to Link Isolated Chimpanzees

Kigali — A group of some 15 chimpanzees isolated in a pocket of Rwandan rain forest will have greater chances for survival - thanks to one of Africa's most ambitious forest restoration and ecological research efforts ever, the project planners say.

Organizers of the project, named the Rwandan National Conservation Park, say that a 30-mile (50km) tree corridor will be planted to connect the Gishwati Forest Reserve, the chimpanzees' home range, to Nyungwe National Park.

The Park is a collaborative effort of government along with Great Ape Trust of Iowa - a US scientific research facility in Iowa and Earthpark - a US national environmental education center proposed for Pella in Iowa State.

The project in Gishwati was unveiled at the Clinton Global Initiative last fall by President Paul Kagame and Ted Townsend, founder of Great Ape Trust and Earthpark.

"This is an ambitious plan, but the Gishwati chimpanzees are on the brink of extinction. Every newly planted tree increases their chance of survival by providing additional food, shelter and security from people," said Dr. Benjamin Beck, director of conservation at Great Ape Trust in a statement.

"If we direct the reforestation southward, there is the additional advantage of bringing them closer to a larger, more secure population in the Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda and the Kibira National Park in Rwanda, with a combined total of about 800 chimpanzees. Once they make contact, the Gishwati chimpanzees will enjoy a wider pool of prospective mates, and thus can avoid inbreeding."

The Gishwati Forest, in the Western Province, was deforested in the 1980s by agricultural development and in the 1990s during the resettlement of people following the civil war and the Genocide.

Human encroachment, deforestation, grazing and the introduction of small-scale farming resulted in extensive soil erosion, flooding, landslides and reduced water quality -- as well as the isolation of a small population of chimpanzees.

A team from Great Ape Trust and Earthpark toured the Gishwati region in late 2007, hosted by representatives from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) and Rwanda National Forestry Authority (NAFA).

The Gishwati project will restore the ecosystem and the natural biodiversity with special emphasis on chimpanzees as a keystone and flagship species.

The project, according to the organizers should also generate income through ecotourism, investment opportunity and local employment.

"We must of course find ways to adequately and sustainably compensate people whose agricultural productivity is decreased by reforestation," Beck added. "One answer will be a new ecotourism destination resulting in employment opportunities as trackers and forest managers."

Staff for the project is to be recruited this month and that will put other programs on track to start major activities for this year.

A study of the behavioral ecology of the Gishwati chimpanzee population is due to start to determine population size, resource and space use, patterns of social and reproductive behavior.

The degree of genetic relatedness, patterns of tool use and communication, health will be part of the study as well as nutritional status and degree of human conflict.

Part of the plan to expand the existing Gishwati core forest by at least 200 hectares (500 acres)

The National University of Rwanda will avail satellite images and ground mapping information to plan a Gishwati to Nyungwe forest corridor to incorporate Gishwati as a functional component of Nyungwe National Park.

A 'corridor laboratory' in Nyungwe National Park will be created. This pilot forest corridor of 10km (6 miles) would connect the main block of Nyungwe NP to Cyamudongo, an isolated section of forest roughly the same size as Gishwati with a comparable population of chimpanzees. The test corridor will serve as a laboratory in which to study the use of the corridors by chimpanzees.

The project is to provide community education and economic development programs for those living around the Gishwati Forest Reserve, planners say. This would include employment opportunities for trackers for the chimpanzee study, planting and monitoring forest trees and technical support for the development of agricultural cooperatives.

Organizers also say deforestation of the existing 102km core forest and riverbanks in the Gishwati Forest Reserve will be restricted.

There will also be socioeconomic study of the human population living in and around Gishwati. Begin negotiations to establish sustainable livelihoods for occupants of land within area of core forest expansion.

Once the second-largest indigenous forest in Rwanda, Gishwati extended 1,0002 km (100,000 hectares or 250,000 acres) in the early 1900s. By the late 1980s, Gishwati was about one-fourth its original size. Resettlement by refugees following the 1994 genocide reduced the forest to about 62 km (600 hectares or 1,500 acres). Reforestation efforts during the past several years have increased Gishwati's forest to approximately 102 km (1,000 hectares or 2,500 acres).

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