Archive for the ‘biodiversity’ Category

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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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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I have a slight fascination with plants.  Botany had always been a side dream of mine.  Plants don’t judge; they don’t think: they just are. Each one is a fascinating in its own way, perfectly adapted to their environment.  You could spend lifetimes, and people have, studying the billions of different plants that have evolved to be in that place at that time.


That’s why, when I interviewed Aimable Nsanzurwimo who is the coordinator of the Botany Research Program at the Karisoke Research Center, I could hardly contain my glee.  The Albertine Rift has 1,034 plant species, 82 of which are endemic to the Albertine Rift, with more being discovered all the time.  Aimable is basically a kid in a candy store and I envy him.


Aimable Nsanzurwimo has been with the Karisoke Research Center since 2005 but, like most employees here, started as a student studying for his bachelors on bamboo.  Bamboo is very important vegetation to both the monkeys in the park and the gorillas as they provide a good source of food. By looking at species that are associated with bamboo growth, he could determine the positive and negative impact they had on its growth.


Of particular interest to him was whether or not gorillas knew to choose certain plants in order to medicate themselves.  Aimable looked at how the local population used plants for medication and then looked at what plants the gorillas eat.  The two corresponded.  Of the 110 plants used by the people for medicinal purposes, the gorillas shared 35.  This meant that there is a possibility that the gorillas were eating certain plants to help with minor illnesses, such as bowel troubles.


Some of the plants that gorillas eat include the secamone Africana, the gomphocarpus physocatpus, the pentarrhinum inspidum and, of course, bamboo which is shared by both gorillas and Golden Monkeys.



The vast amount of diversity at the park means that Aimable has a large amount of work ahead of him.  He has begun a plant database of all the plants in the park.  He has also reviewed the list of plants that the monkeys and gorillas eat.  Around 80 and 114 plants are eaten by them respectively.  So far, he has identified 162 plant species and discovered new species of moss, orchids and sponges.  Weather in North-Western Rwanda is varying; I was supposed to have missed the rainy season all together but instead the rain continued for another half a month.  In order to measure this change, Aimable has begun recording rainfall per month.



In the future, Aimable wants to continue his research on bamboo and orchids over a long term along with continued updates on the plant catalogue.  He also hopes to have a botanical garden for all the plants in the first two vegetation areas of the volcanoes.  The mere idea of having an area where one can be surrounded by and observe all the different plants of the Volcanoes National Park makes me drool.


However, Aimable’s set-up is still not up to par for the work he is trying to do now.  The sad fact is that he does not have enough resources: he is using newspapers to preserve plants.  Nevertheless, looking back to 2005 and how the Botany Program has so far grown, Aimable is very happy and believes the best is yet to come…


“If there are no plants, there are no gorillas!”

Photos provided by Aimable Nsanzurwimo

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My days at the Karisoke Research Center have consisted of me getting up in the morning and coming to the office.  Once there, I pretend to write something while staring frustratingly at my rising pile of notes.  The amount of work I’ve been doing has risen dramatically since I arrived here.  I have at least 2 or 3 interviews planned for me per day at it leaves little time for my writing.  However, I am at the point where I have very few people left to interview and the articles are the only thing left for me to do.

During one of the staring-at-my-pile-of-notes session, Deogratias Tuyisingize came up and told me we were going to be having an interview later that day.  Many of my interviews seem to be organized in this impromptu way. I often come to the office only to find out I’m already late for an interview I was never told about.  I’ve taking up the habit of coming to the office first thing every morning just in case.

Deogratias giving a presentation

Every time I see Deo he seems to have a big smile on his face and is always eager to talk about his programs. His primary focus is the Golden Monkey program. He came to the Center 4 years ago to do his undergraduate work on the Golden Monkeys under the supervision of the Karisoke director Katie Fawcett.  He’s since become the program coordinator and has started two new programs on large mammals and butterflies. Every time Deo picks up a scientific paper, he gets an idea for another conservation project and wants to realize that idea: “I need everything to be known, not just in the Volcanoes National Park.”

Photo by Deo

The golden monkey, like the gorillas, is endemic to Albertine Rift which is the string of volcanoes I’m presently living next to in the North West part of Rwanda. The monkeys have a distinctive golden body and great bulbous cheeks.  The monkeys have been on the endangered species list since 1994 and Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International has been studying them since 2002.  The species can only be found here and the Gishwati Park to the south.

Photo by Deo

They focus on two groups of monkeys with around 80 to 90 monkeys per group. However, the groups like to live in a very small area in the bamboo zone and you cannot count them all at once. The only time a researcher can observe how many there are in a group is when the group crosses a clearing or a stream. The group will file out one by one across the stream and a tracker has to be quick to count them all as they cross.

Photo by Deo

Slain Golden MonkeysIn the long term study of the monkeys, Deo is looking at 8 behaviours: feeding, moving, resting, playing, grooming, vocalisation, fighting / aggression and copulation. The results of these studies may shed light on why the Ugandan side of the park has recorded a decline in the Golden Monkey groups at a whopping 40%!  Deo has many theories as to why this may be that he wants to test in the future.  He thinks the harvesting of bamboo and climate changes have contributed to loss of their habitat.  There is also a strange lack of babies in the groups despite the fact that there is no lack of copulation or females.



Herd of BuffaloDeogratias’ next project entails the study of large mammals in the Volcanoes National Park with the support from the Protected Area Biodiversity Project. Deo is focusing on the buffalo, antelopes, duikers and, sometimes on a rare occasion, elephants.  Large Mammals is a group that is the most heavily hunted for bush meat and it is a good index of the overall conservation status.  Tourists who come to see them are an added bonus as well.  The point of the conservation project is to maintain the current population, assess the importance of the different vegetation zones and compare findings to research done in 2003 and 1991.





Finally, Deo’s latest project is the Invertebrate Conservation Project with the butterfly as its model.  This project is still just a skeleton and will study the importance the conservation area provides for the invertebrates.  Hopefully, like the gorillas, the butterflies will become something tourists, as well, could be able to come to the Virungas to enjoy.


While Deogratias loves animals and works towards preserving them, it is very hard to find funds to train and staff people needed for project teams.  Insecurity in the Democratic Republic of Congo also makes it hard to find funding for that side of the park so animals are left helpless if they move across the border.  Deo’s enthusiasm for his projects is very energizing.  I know one thing for sure; he will always try to find new and exciting ways to save the animals he cares so deeply about.

 Photos by Deogratias, Antelopes photographed by Veronica Vecellio

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