Archive for July, 2008

A day and a half. I had a day and a half to interview a whole village.  There is so much going on at the Tayna Nature Reserve in the DR Congo that I could spend an eternity discovering all the different ways each individual helped out.  In essence, the reserve was created by the coming together of people dedicated to the success of the project; therefore, not one person could be overlooked when talking about its creation and expansion.



Guillaume  Kambale Kioma, Program Director for Research at Tayna Nature Reserve (TNR), worked alongside the TNR Program Coordinator Pierre Kakule Vwirisihikya at the Virunga National Park many years ago.  For ten years, Guillaume and Pierre worked through dangerous circumstances.  The Park is a battle ground between rebel groups, charcoal dealers and poachers.  Despite constant threat, Guillaume and Pierre stayed on often without pay.  When Pierre began the Tayna Nature Reserve Project with DFGFI, Guillaume immediately joined in.  “It is better to do community reserves because the population benefits,” he says, “People are less likely to attack the community based reserves because they have a vested interest in it.”  In contrast to his previous job, his post as Program Director of Research would require no guns.  Because the DR Congo is such a mountainous place, the Tayna Reserve survives largely undisturbed by the civil war waging to the south.  Tayna has grown so much in the past years that it now encompasses 90,000 hectares with four stations around the park for the trackers. 



While all the villages are committed to helping to making the reserve work, funds are always the main problem.  The trackers need brick houses because the current ones are made of mud and they do not have any electricity or potable water at all the stations.  They are also in need of more technical staff and more men in the field.



The feeling of community is overwhelming.  Everyone is dedicated to the success of the reserve.  I know that this month everyone is going to be working extra hard… the road needs to be repaired!


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300 orphans

Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, over 300 orphans in the middle of the Democratic Republic of Congo were singing and dancing to their hearts content.  The sound was deafening and amazingly infatuating.  All I wanted to do was dance with them until the day was out.  “We say welcome to you. We say welcome to Tayna Reserve! We are happy, happy! We are happy, happy, happy, happy happy!” They sang to us in almost perfect unison.  One blow of the whistle: tweet “Ready!” tweet “Ready!” tweet “Ready! Ready! Ready! For conservation!” they all yelled their school motto excitedly.




The Muyisa Primary school is one of the many results of the Tayna Nature Reserve.  The school is funded by the entire community through the reserve with the help of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.  Each one of these students is an orphan of either war or AIDS.  They come from far and wide with some kids walking some 5km to school each day over mountainous terrain.  When they arrive they each pile into their classes.  There are around 60 kids all sharing a class where they learn about such subjects as math, French, English, science, geography, religion, culture and, of course, conservation.



The school master and English teacher Kakule Nguru is very proud of his job.  The school was founded in 2005 and he took the position in 2007.  His biggest worry is that next year will mark the first graduates and they will need a secondary school.  “The people will help build the school but they are poor,” he says.  When something needs to be built in the community, every family helps out but the meagre funds they are able to pool often does not meet allow them to achieve their goals.  That is where DFGFI comes in. However, even with DFGFI’s help, there is often not enough.  There is also a need for an orphanage where the orphans can stay.  While the children are provided a meal and are cleaned when they get there, they are not always well cared for at their foster homes. “You can never truly be an orphan here; there is always some relative who will take them in but they are not cared for and as you can see they are very dirty,” he says.



With another beat of the drum, the children are dancing again and Nguru joins in.  It is very evident that he cares a great deal about these kids.  To be quite honest, being around them, it is quite hard not to.

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Stepping out the door on my first morning in the Tayna Nature Reserve was breathtaking.  Everywhere I looked there were rolling hills covered in forest and mist.  In the distance, one could hear the dancers still dancing from the night before.


The Tayna Nature Reserve is at the forefront of conservation innovation.  The idea is simple: instead of forcing the population surrounding a park out with guns, give them reason to celebrate and embrace it.  Let the people become the benefactors and know why they need the reserve. This is called Community Based Conservation. The founder of this concept is Pierre Kakule Vwirasihikya.



Pierre was born and raised in the city of Butembo, which is the closest urban center to the reserve today.  After finishing high school, he left for Goma where he worked as a guard at the Virunga National Park.  Three years later he was chosen to go to Cameroon where he would study about conservation for the next two years.  His dedication to conservation fortified and when he returned to the Virunga National Park he became Chief Warden.  His job as Chief Warden put Pierre very often in grave danger; the civil war was waging and is continuing today.  The park was and still is under threat by rebel groups and poachers.  After ten years in this post, Pierre realized that if he truly wanted to make a change he would have to take charge. In 1997, Pierre quit his job in order to try and establish a community reserve for his home region.


His first step was to talk to the chiefs of two villages next to the forest.  “They said it is difficult and that benefits go elsewhere and are not recycled into the community,” says Pierre.  These were legitimate concerns, based upon previous conservation attempts in DRC, and Pierre decided that the only way the forest could be protected was if it benefited the community; thus, the concept of a community based nature reserve was born.  Batangi and Bamate became the first two villages to donate land for the reserve.  In 2000, the first general assembly for the Tayna Gorilla Reserve took place.   The assembly agreed that if the reserve was to exist, the finances must be used for development and that in no way should the rangers carry arms.  For the first time in the DR Congo, a forest was going to be protected without the use of guns.



In 2001, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International was approached for help and offered to seek funding for the project and provide technical training and legal guidance.  By that time, the reserve was functioning.  The guards and guides were being funded completely by the coordinators and the chiefs.  With DFGFI financial and technical support, Pierre worked on a committee to expand the project.  By 2003, basic medical care, orphanages (needed because parents died from war and disease) and numerous other developmental projects were being supported.  In the same year, in order to ensure that the children of the chiefs and landowners were trained in conservation, a university was built.  The Tayna Center for Conservation Biology University (TCCB) was started with 21 professors on subjects relating to conservation and community development.  In 2006, the University was formally accepted by the DRC Ministry of Education and the subjects expanded to six faculties including medicine. In 2007, 67 students graduated with their bachelor’s degrees.


The Tayna reserve has been so successful that other communities have come to Tayna to learn about establishing similar reserves.  Pierre now sits as Executive Secretary of the Union of Associations for Gorilla Conservation and Community Development in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (UGADEC).  The Union brings together eight community reserve association which all put money towards developing their area. Two of the eight community based reserves are recognized by the DRC government as “Protect Areas” which have the same rights as national parks but are managed by the communities. The other six reserves are in various stages of development to meet their conservation goals to be legally recognized as protected areas.



In 2004, a Regional Health Clinic was built in order to treat students and local people.  It has since grow considerably and is able to service the entire community and functions to link rural smaller health clinics and provide essential regional life-saving treatment.  In addition, a radio was constructed so that students in journalism could practice their studies and could broadcast on information on conservation and health.  A year later, a primary school was established specifically for the many orphans caused by AIDS and war.


It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the impact Pierre has had on these communities.  He has persevered despite the destructiveness of war and poverty.  There is still a great need to invest in DFGFI community initiatives which can become sustainable to reward people for their commitment to conservation. Pierre says, “The point of Tayna was to alleviate poverty and for strangers to come visit through ecotourism initiatives,” says Pierre, “we are proud of our forests and their amazing biodiversity. We are grateful that DFGFI would help us when no one else was interested.”

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Arriving in DRC

My first day in the Congo was a day of sitting in various seats while the world moved around me.  I’m not sure why travelling makes people so tired and cranky.  People sit in a chair all day most of the time anyway either in front of a computer or a T.V. Got up early in the morning so I could be fresh and prepared for when Dr. Alecia Lily came by to pick me up.  She is the Vice-President of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and the President of Africa Programs.  However, it turns out that getting up early was a bit optimistic since when the car finally did come round to pick me up it was over three hours late.  When travelling to other countries, I am always aware of the stark contrast between concepts of time.  North America is obsessed with punctuality and getting things done on time.  I have a particularly jumpy personality and so even I am too punctual for most people in Canada.  I have a knack for showing up to things way too early because I am always convinced that the bus into downtown Montreal will never show up and this is most often the case.  Just a side note for anyone interested, I have a deep loathing for the Société de Transport de Montréal.  At any rate, I have no reason to complain about people elsewhere being on Africa time.  Because the DR Congo is not a place for tourists, it’s pretty lucky that Alecia is allowing me to tag along while she visits the programs going on at the Tayna Nature Reserve.



Getting to Tayna takes time.  It’s about an hour’s drive to the Congolese border from Ruhengeri and about another hour just purchasing the visa and getting through immigration.  Once on the other side, you are in Goma which is a bustling city eclipsed by a volcano and sitting prettily next to Lake Kivu.  There are whole sectors of the city sitting atop black volcanic rock left over from the last time the lava flowed through a few years ago.  The thing that stands out the most in Goma is the sheer amount of UN forces stationed there.  Everywhere you look there is a jumble of blue turbans from the Sikh division of the peacekeepers who are being trucked around the various parts of the city.  While waiting for the car to bring me to the airport, I sat outside my hotel watching peacekeeper after peacekeeper jog by for their morning exercise.  Because of the insecurity occurring within and around the Virunga National Park, the next part of our journey was by plane.  A few hours later we arrived in Butembo where we all piled into a truck to drive the rest of the way.  Now by the time we got to this step, the sun had gone done and this made for an interesting journey.  To say the road was in disrepair is to put it lightly.  There were some holes in the road that were half the size of our vehicle.  Without any seatbelts or even proper seats, we were heaved from one side to the other for the next four hours.



Looking out the windows was certainly enough to concern anyone not used to the wilderness.  All you could see beside the blackness is the density of the trees.  We were truly in the deepest darkest Africa.  All of a sudden a light was seen in the darkness.  Then the soft sound of drums could be heard in the distance.  As the sound grew louder, voices could be heard as well.  Upon rounding a corner, we saw them: a group of dancers moving to the beat of the drums.  They had apparently been dancing all day waiting for our arrival.


After some supper, I settled right into bed.  I had arrived in the unknown.  I eagerly awaited the morning sun.

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It’s about time

OK, OK. So I guess I should post something about my little trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here is a very large article for your reading pleasure.  I know you all read these top to bottom and then go off and research exra information about it all… right?

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Bird Diversity

There is a war going on in my backyard. Not a silent or subtle war but an all out screeching at each other war: the birds are fighting.  Unlike most backyards in Rwanda, ours does not attract the many beautiful birds that inhabit Rwanda.  Instead, our numerous Avocado trees attract a different kind. There are Black Kites, storks, vultures, black and white crows and some horribly loud bird called an Ibis.  Since the rate at which I presently read books, about one every three or four days, I’ve quickly run out of novels to read in this house and these birds provide a good source of entertainment.  It is for this reason you’ll find that I always sit at the dining room table facing the backyard.




Therefore it was with curiosity that I went to interview the coordinator of the Ornithology program.  Perhaps he could tell me about all the birds I was missing out on.  Claudien has been studying birds since 2004 doing research on the Grauer’s Swamp Warbler with the help of Katie Fawcett who is the director of the Karisoke Research Center.  Now he trains field staff for Rwandan tourism and research on their ecology and how to identify birds.  In addition to training guides, Claudien assists undergraduate students on their research.



While the program is only a fledgling, the Karisoke Research Center is now recognized as one among many birding organizations in Rwanda.  Claudien has also established a relationship with Sutton Avian Research Center and hopes to establish many more relationships with other birding organisations.  In the future, the Bird Diversity Program will conduct research on threatened and endemics to the Albertine Rift area and continue research on the Grauer’s Swamp Warbler.



Ignorance, according to Claudien, is one of the biggest hurtles for bird conservation: “The people in the local area still have very little knowledge about the importance of birds.”  It is for this reason that the program is dedicated to educating the population.  For the second year, Claudien has organized the World Migratory Bird Day. In the past, he has also organized day to celebrate the World Bird Festival by going to a primary school and giving presentations.  In addition to lack of knowledge about the importance of bird diversity, cattle grazing and grass cutting greatly reduce the habitat for most birds.



While the future of Bird Conservation is hopeful since birding is a popular attraction for tourists, the program still has a long way to go.  Claudien hopes to continue his studies and gain more training in birding techniques.   Hopefully with the collaboration with other organisations, he will be able to evolve his program.

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Since Dian Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Center, it has had no shortage of female researchers.  In fact, both the previous director of Karisoke Liz Williamson and the present one Katie Fawcett are women. However, it is not common to find a Rwandan woman researcher.  While the Rwandan government is amazingly gender neutral, it is a fairly recent development.  While the Gorilla Research Program’s manager is a woman, the program can only boast one Rwandan female on the team: Theodette Gatesire who is the data entry assistant.  Together we are visiting the famous woman researcher’s grave.


In 2005, Theodette came to Karisoke to study the behaviour of lone silverback gorillas. Studying these gorillas is no easy feat; one must track long distances to follow the gorillas and over steep terrain.  “When I tracked silverbacks, I had to walk a lot and go very fast to keep up with the gorillas.  I have no problems with the forest,” she says.   After finishing her memoirs, she went to work for the Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks as a guide.  While she enjoyed showing tourists through the park, she left half a year later to return to Karisoke as the data entry assistant.  When she got pregnant, she thought her career at Karisoke was over and was greatly surprised when she got a call asking if she was strong enough to return to work. “I can try!” was her response.  At first she asked to only work three days a week with a maximum of five to six hours per week.  When she was told she was allowed to bring her baby in to work, she returned to her full schedule with seven hours a day.


The trek up the volcanoes is long and arduous.  Despite having travelled this trail many times before, Theodette and Fidel Uwimana, the field data coordinator, go at a pace that will not completely wear me out.  Fidel knows this site especially well because he worked and lived in one of the cabins here for Dian Fossey herself.  When we come across a skeleton frame of a building, Fidel explains with a smile that this is where he once lived.


On our way back from the park, we discussed the status of women.  “The women in Africa are very strong because it is them who do the work in the field, fetch the water and the hard labour.  They can have a baby on their back, go fetch water and take care of the home,” she says, “You rarely see a man taking care of a baby or cooking.”  Suddenly our driver, Jean-Bosco, pipes in “there are few who help their wives.” He points out that he especially helps out when his wife is sick.  “Most men call in another female relative when their wives are sick,” he says.  Jean-Bosco is from a younger generation; Theodette thinks that with the next generation it will be even more equal.

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