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Gishwati Area Conservation Program, Rwanda

Rubavu (former Gisenyi), Rwanda

Since late 2007, Great Ape Trust (The Trust), Earthpark and the Republic of Rwanda have co-sponsored and managed the Gishwati Area Conservation Program (GACP) in Rwanda.   The work is centered around the former Gishwati Forest Reserve, a national forest located in the Rutsiro District of the western part of the country.


The Gishwati Reserve has only about 9 km² or 900 ha (3.6 mi² or 2,224 acres) of natural forest remaining, with a chimpanzee population of 14 individuals. There are an additional 7 km² or 700 ha (2.8 mi² or 1,729 acres) of agricultural fields and pastures that are, or soon will be, recognized as being within Reserve boundaries.


Neither the forest nor the chimpanzee population is sustainable without immediate protection, and augmentation in the long run. Gishwati has a history of deforestation extending over the past 50 years, in part because of ill-advised large-scale cattle ranching schemes, resettlement of refugees after the genocide, inefficient small-plot farming, free-grazing of cattle, and the establishment of plantations of non-native trees. As a result, the area is plagued with catastrophic flooding, landslides, erosion, decreased soil fertility, decreased water quality, and heavy river siltation, all of which aggravate local poverty.


GACP began in September 2007 when H.E. President Paul Kagame and Earthpark and Great Ape Trust Founder and Chair Ted Townsend pledged at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) meeting in New York City to found a “national conservation park” in Rwanda to benefit climate, biodiversity and the welfare of the Rwandan people. By December 2007, the Gishwati Reserve, long recognized as “beyond hope” by conservation NGOs, was chosen as the site of the park-to-be.


Why conserve and restore the Gishwati Forest?

The eastern chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinturthii), an endangered great ape, occurs in fragmented populations in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, along the north-south mountainous divide that separates the watersheds of the Congo and Nile Rivers.


The long-term viability of most of these chimpanzee populations will depend on connecting them with the others (Plumptre et al 2003; Barakabuye et al 2007). Rwanda’s Gishwati Forest Reserve is “one link in a chain” of sites with chimpanzees (Nyungwe, Mukura, Maramagambo, Kibale and Budongo).  Gishwati is the smallest of these sites, but every link in a chain is equally valuable, regardless of its size.


Connectivity will also help preserve the other unique fauna and flora of the Congo-Nile Divide, which has been designated by Conservation International as a high priority conservation “hot spot.”  That the Gishwati fragment and the chimpanzees survive at all is miraculous, and we should not let them slip through our fingers.


Endangered golden monkeys also occur at Gishwati. A student team from the National University of Rwanda recorded several endemic bird species during a one-day reconnaissance (the regal sunbird, Ruwenzori double-collared sunbird, stripe-breasted tit, mountain masked apalis, collared apalis and Ruwenzori turaco). At least one previously undocumented chameleon and an undocumented orchid have already been discovered.


A plan has been developed to connect Gishwati with Nyungwe National Park, about 50 km (31 mi) to the south. Corridor planning is scheduled to begin in 2010. The corridor will increase available habitat fourfold but, more importantly, will allow interbreeding between the chimpanzees of Gishwati and Nyungwe.


Gishwati can play an important role in global efforts to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gasses by storing carbon. The standing forest at Gishwati is estimated to hold 153,000 metric tonnes (168,654 tons) of carbon, and reforestation of the 716 hectares (1,769 acres) of agricultural fields that are or soon will be included within the Reserve will sequester an additional 163,000 metric tonnes (179,677 tons)  after 30 years of growth.


Local people suffer economically from loss of the Gishwati Forest: They have less access to traditional foods, medicines and handcraft materials; disruption of traditional livestock grazing practices; less fodder for livestock; less retention of rainfall (resulting in floods and erosion); less filtration and purification of water and sewage; decreased soil fertility (due to topsoil loss during erosion); decreased availability of wood; and fewer opportunities for ecotourism and other future sustainable economic uses (Musahara et al 2006).


The restoration of the forest as a protected area will provide some, but not all, of these benefits. Plans to save Gishwati’s biodiversity must ethically and practically include added socioeconomic, educational and health benefits to the human populations surrounding the park.


Four goals guide the Gishwati project:

1/ Create Gishwati National Conservation Park, defined as conservation of biodiversity in an extensively degraded landscape, populated with economically disadvantaged small-scale farmers.

2/ Restore ecosystem services in the form of improved water quality, reduced soil erosion and flooding, fewer landslides and increased sequestration of carbon.

3/ Restore natural biodiversity with special emphasis on chimpanzees as a keystone and flagship species.

4/ Generate income through ecotourism, investment opportunity and local employment.

According to Dr. Benjamin Beck, director of conservation for Earthpark and Great Ape Trust, the progress of this project is inspirational and instructive, because solutions that work in the desperate situation at Gishwati are likely to be effective for many endangered populations of great apes in the future.


“Gishwati is a test bed for new conservation approaches, and has become a ‘Forest of Hope’ rather than being the place ‘beyond hope’ that it was just two short years ago,” he said. “Funding is urgently required to consolidate these gains, and to pursue a trajectory of long-term success. We must be mindful of, and fiercely resistant to, David Brower’s observation: ‘All of our (conservation) victories are temporary, all of our defeats are permanent.’”


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