Information Sharing for Gorilla Conservation: a Workshop in Ruhija
Gorilla conservationists and researchers working on the ground at different sites often face the challenge of accessing valuable yet unpublished information about ongoing projects outside their immediate locality, and sharing experiences on their respective projects. Poor information sharing among field workers means that those planning or carrying out projects at one site may not be able to learn from the experiences of others who might have implemented similar projects at other sites. Another consequence of poor information sharing is that opportunities for collaboration between sites or between researchers might be missed. Improving information sharing among field workers is therefore essential. One way of enhancing information sharing is by organizing meetings that afford field workers the opportunity to meet and interact regularly. Recently, an effort was made to meet this need.
From 28th to 30th June 2011 about 40 gorilla researchers and conservationists from nearly all gorilla range states (Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda) convened in Ruhija, a village on the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda to share their knowledge and experience on a wide range of issues concerning gorilla research and conservation during a workshop entitled “Gorillas Across Africa: Information Sharing for Conservation & Research”. Participants came from diverse backgrounds – NGOs, government and academia. The workshop was organised and funded by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVAN) and North Carolina Zoological Park (NC Zoo) and hosted by the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC). The workshop provided a unique opportunity, especially for early-career gorilla researchers and conservationists, to share information on their work and build professional relationships. A wide range of gorilla conservation issues were discussed, including the diverse threats faced by gorillas (poaching, habitat degradation and fragmentation, disease etc.), gorilla research and monitoring (including use of camera traps and the cybertracker system for non-invasive monitoring), gorilla-human disease transmission, gorilla habituation and tourism, human-wildlife conflict management, gorilla ecology and behaviour, conservation education, community conservation and more.
For many participants, some of the information presented at this workshop about ongoing projects was new and helped improve their perspective on gorilla conservation efforts across Africa, and the conservation status of different gorilla populations. Most importantly, lessons were learned from the challenges faced in the implementation of different projects and the measures adopted to overcome them where possible. Many participants felt confident that the knowledge gained and lessons learned will help them improve their work at different sites.
It was recognised that site-specific differences do exist due to cultural, economic and socio-political factors between range countries and even regions within countries where gorillas occur. However, the threats facing gorillas (such as poaching, habitat loss and fragmentation, and disease) and the conservation approaches adopted to mitigate them are largely similar across all sites, though it is clear that there is not one blanket solution to address these threats at all sites. Therefore, while lessons could be learned from successful conservation approaches at certain sites, it is important to be cautious when attempting to replicate such approaches at other sites since the prevailing social, cultural, economic and political circumstances may be different and are likely to influence the outcome of projects and their long-term consequences on gorilla conservation.
Some general points were agreed by participants as being important for improving gorilla conservation at all sites:
- There is urgent need for better protection to reduce habitat loss and direct threats to gorillas from poaching.
- Support for conservation efforts must come from all stakeholders – community, national and international.
- Transboundary collaboration should be promoted for effective landscape-based gorilla conservation.
- Improved monitoring and prevention of human–wildlife disease transmission is important to safeguard the health of gorilla populations.
- Better understanding and management of human–wildlife conflict is needed to reduce its negative impact on both humans and gorillas.
- While gorilla tourism provides an incentive for communities to support conservation, it is important to measure and monitor the impact of habituation and tourism on gorilla health and behaviour.
- An expectation has developed in the conservation world that local people must derive economic benefits from conservation. However, there are situations where this may not yet be possible, especially in the short term. This fact needs to be incorporated more strongly in conservation education messages for gorilla conservation.
- Research and monitoring: it is important to assess the long-term impacts of protection and development strategies on gorilla populations; more accurate estimates of gorilla numbers are needed at all sites.
- Community-based conservation has great potential for sustainable gorilla conservation because of the strong sense of local ownership often associated with community conservation initiatives.
- Sustainable funding is important to ensure continuity of conservation efforts.
Post-workshop Field Trip
At the end of the workshop, a field trip to some conservation projects and protected areas was organized to give participants (especially those from West and Central Africa) the opportunity to learn more about wildlife conservation in Uganda by directly observing conservation projects and interacting with protected area staff. From 1st to 7th July 2011 we visited four protected areas (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, BINP, Queen Elizabeth National Park, QENP, Kibale National Park, KNP and a community forest managed by the Kibale Association for Rural and Environment Development, KAFRED), and a conservation education project – Uganda and North Carolina International Teaching for the Environment (UNITE), implemented in communities around Kibale National Park.
In BINP we tracked a gorilla group habituated for research and learned about some of the ongoing behavioural studies of mountain gorillas. For some of us studying populations with no habituated groups and very rarely seeing the gorillas (e.g. Cross River gorillas Gorilla gorilla diehli) viewing a whole group at close range for a relatively long period of time was a unique and exciting experience. It was also interesting to learn about the magnitude of gorilla based tourism activity in Uganda, the revenue derived from it, and the related management challenges.
At all the sites we visited we observed relatively high levels of wildlife abundance. The considerably lower levels of wildlife abundance at many sites in West Africa (for example) compared to levels observed at the sites we visited is indicative of weaker protection in most protected areas in West Africa which underscores the urgent need to improve protected area management in the West African region. Poor protected area management and the consequently low abundance of wildlife makes wildlife based tourism, with its immense potential for generating sustainable conservation funding in the West African region less feasible.
At QENP it was interesting to see people living together with wildlife apparently peacefully despite the challenges, the incentive from tourism revenue probably playing a role. KAFRED, a community-based conservation initiative in Bigodi village, near Kibale National Park, seems to be a good example of a successful community-based conservation approach to protecting biodiversity outside of government managed protected areas. This group is conserving a swamp forest from which it is also generating revenue from ecotourism. During a quick guided tour of this community forest we observed four species of monkey; and revenue from ecotourism at the site has been used to build a secondary school and fund other developmental projects in Bigodi village.
We rounded up our trip with a visit to the headquarters of the KNP where we had a meeting with the chief warden, who is also the head of the Kibale Conservation Area (a conservation management unit), and other staff to discuss the observations we made during our trip and management challenges facing the park authority (including human–wildlife conflict and poaching) and strategies adopted to deal with them. We had a similar meeting with the chief warden and other staff at the park headquarters of BINP at the end of our visit to that park, and with park wardens at QENP during our visit there. These meetings were very informative, and provided an excellent opportunity for sharing our conservation experiences from three African regions with some differences in political, economic and socio-cultural characteristics that influence biodiversity conservation.
Overall, this workshop was successful as a medium for information and experience sharing among field workers. The field trip at the end of the workshop was both interesting and informative. We would like to see such meetings organized more regularly to provide regular updates on conservation and research projects at different sites.
Inaoyom Imong, Ekwoge Abwe, Romanus Ikfuingei, Jean-Robert Onononga and Loïc Makaga
We are grateful to the organizers, especially Martha Robbins and Richard Bergl, for providing us with the opportunity to interact, face-to-face, with other gorilla researchers and conservationists from across Africa, share knowledge and experiences and build relationships that will improve our work. We would also like to thank the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the management of the different protected areas we visited for their assistance and cooperation that made the field trip enjoyable and rewarding. Finally, we would like to thank the people of Ruhija and Bigodi villages and the many other Ugandans we met during the workshop and field trip for their warm hospitality that made us feel very much at home in Uganda.