A Sanctuary Under Siege

By Carl ZimmerMar 1, 1994 12:00 AM


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In Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest, researchers are finding it hard to sell the conservation ethic to people with more pressing problems.

The best-known way to see wild primates is to go to Volcanoes National Park in the central African country of Rwanda. There guides can lead you along trails to see the mountain gorillas made famous by the late primatologist Dian Fossey. Yet Rwanda, despite being only the size of New Hampshire, is the home of another group of primates that, while far less famous than the gorillas, are no less magnificent. The Nyungwe Forest Reserve contains enormous groups of Angolan black-and-white colobus monkeys. With a guide or on your own, it’s relatively easy to find congregations of as many as 400 of these long-haired 20-pound monkeys leaping acrobatically through the treetops, croaking as they go. The colobus monkeys of Nyungwe form the largest stable groups of any tree- dwelling monkeys anywhere.

The two Rwandan parks have more than primates in common. The same American researchers who introduced groundbreaking methods of wildlife conservation to save the mountain gorillas have brought a similar strategy to Nyungwe. The philosophy behind their work is that it is vital to give the people who actually live with the wildlife a stake in its preservation. While the strategy has worked so far in Volcanoes National Park, conservationists would like to know if it is reproducible elsewhere. There are some signs of success in Nyungwe, but in the words of Robert Fimbel, codirector of the Nyungwe Forest Conservation Project, it’s far harder than I ever imagined it would be.

If you had asked Dian Fossey, she would have said it was impossible to work with the locals. For her, the only way to protect gorillas was to wage a personal war on poachers. But in the late 1970s Bill Weber and Amy Vedder, a husband-and-wife team of researchers working for the Wildlife Conservation Society (the outfit that runs the Bronx Zoo), explored a very different strategy in Volcanoes. Weber’s research showed that poaching, while a problem, was not as significant a threat to the gorillas as the simple loss of their habitat. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa and one of the poorest in the world; 95 percent of its exploding population lives in rural areas, where the land shortage forces many farmers to work plots smaller than an acre. At the time Weber and Vedder began working in Rwanda, neither the government nor the farmers around Volcanoes knew or cared much about the gorillas. The government was considering turning a lot of the park into ranchland.

Weber and Vedder decided to find a way to make the gorillas’ survival more important to the Rwandans. They helped the Rwandan Park Service set up tours to visit the gorillas. Foreigners now pay $200 for a day’s visit, and the thousands of visitors who come each year have helped make tourism one of the biggest foreign-exchange generators in the country. The Volcanoes project hired people living near the park as guards and guides and embarked on a major education campaign to get both children and adults to understand the value of the gorillas. Statistics suggest that the project has been a success: the gorilla population grew steadily from its all-time low of 254 in 1981 to about 320 in 1989, when the last formal census was done.

The success of projects such as Weber and Vedder’s has helped usher in a new way of thinking in conservation. The people who went out to do fieldwork didn’t go to solve the world’s problems, they went to study animals, says Weber. They didn’t go out to deal with social issues. But these issues are now bearing on their work. The core problems in conservation aren’t biological, they’re socioeconomic.

Other researchers had told Weber and Vedder that they should find the time to explore Nyungwe, and in the 1980s they did. Although at 400 square miles Nyungwe is the largest mountain rain forest in Africa, it had barely been studied, largely because of bad roads (which have since been improved). Poor soil and rough terrain had kept Nyungwe from being turned into farmland, and it remained a haven for at least 190 species of trees, 275 species of birds, and 12 species of primates. Still, Weber and Vedder found that Nyungwe was suffering. Fifty years of gold mining had taken a heavy toll; the miners cut down trees for firewood and poached animals for food. And as overpopulation reached extreme proportions in Rwanda, farmers desperate for land had nibbled at the edges of the forest. Twenty percent of it had been destroyed since 1950. Systematic game hunting had wiped out all the buffalo and most of the forest antelopes known as duikers. Local residents today recall that 20 years ago elephants were so plentiful in the forest that they stopped traffic on the local road. But after two decades of slaughter, there are at most six elephants left in Nyungwe. Last year guides reported seeing only one.

Vedder documented the enormous size of the colobus groups for the first time in 1987. In the following two years she and Weber put into action a strategy very similar to the one they had used with the gorillas. The Nyungwe Forest Conservation Project brought campsites and miles of trails to the forest. Men who had previously worked as miners or trappers were hired as guides and research assistants. Students from the National University of Rwanda began to research the biology of Nyungwe.

We’d like to get the majority of people around the forest on our side, says Fimbel, a conservation biologist who has been codirecting the project since November 1992 with his wife, Cheryl. We want poachers to have to hide from their neighbors, because there’s no way 30 guards can do the job. There are all kinds of good reasons to keep the forest: beehives for a honey industry, for example--Rwandan forest honey is delicious--trees for firewood and beer-fermenting tubs, plants for traditional medicines.

Yet after six years of work, the morale at Nyungwe is strained at best. Most frustrating for project workers is that many neighboring Rwandans haven’t come to value the forest the way the workers had hoped. They don’t get it. The people around here hate the guards and they hate us, says Fimbel. A lot of anger is directed at the guides and guards, who are often perceived as keeping people from two of the few ways it’s possible to make any money in the region: mining and trapping. One guard was told he’d be killed if he came into surrounding villages at night. Some workers claim that another guard who died last year was actually poisoned by local villagers.

Programs that might improve the situation are languishing. While Weber and Vedder recognized the potential of organizing honey-collecting cooperatives in the forest in the 1980s, no one has tried to bring the notion to life since then. When traditional healers in the region around Nyungwe were contacted a year ago by project workers, they were enthusiastic about cooperating in the effort to preserve the forest; after all, it’s the source of the medicinal plants they use in their practice. But so far nothing much has come of that first contact. Meanwhile the Fimbels have decided to scale back the education program. Trying to get into the hundreds of schools close to the forest proved to be too much given the other work they have to do--everything from supervising research to expanding tourism to courting the Rwandan government and development agencies. We don’t want the education program to die, but we can’t do it all, says Vedder, who now directs all of WCS’s African programs.

Wildlife studies are, by necessity, a slow business, but their pace is painful to witness in a place whose position is as precarious as Nyungwe’s. For example, even though Vedder uncovered the supersocieties of colobus monkeys seven years ago, the underlying reasons they form such large groups are still unknown. Vedder thinks a combination of factors may be at work. Large groups afford protection from leopards and eagles, but they may also be made possible by plentiful food in Nyungwe. (Vedder has seen the Nyungwe monkeys eating lichens and creepers in addition to the leaves that colobus monkeys feed on elsewhere.) As yet there simply isn’t enough information to say why the Nyungwe monkeys form such large groups-- or whether the stability of the groups may be threatened by human intrusions on the park. Certainly one trend is ominous: as game such as buffalo and duikers are exterminated, some poachers are beginning to hunt colobus monkeys for their valuable coats.

Vedder traces Nyungwe’s problems in part to the civil war that broke out in late 1990 between the Rwandan government, which is dominated by the Hutu ethnic group, and Tutsi exiles invading from Uganda. The trouble was nothing so immediate as battles in the forest--Nyungwe was far from the fighting. Instead, the project was paralyzed as staff workers were stuck for a time in the capital, Kigali, and Peace Corps volunteers as well as some Rwandans connected with the project left the country altogether. The Fimbels had tried to put Rwandans in the top four positions in the project but abandoned that goal for the time being because they were unable to find candidates they considered qualified. With the war, it became harder to entice other nongovernmental organizations to cooperate in projects; the government was unwilling to pay much attention to a forest while a war was raging. Now that a fragile peace has lasted for the better part of a year, Vedder hopes that things can improve at Nyungwe. Rwanda’s not out of the woods yet, but we’re going to be in a good position to move on again, says Vedder.

Tourism, she says, is already picking up as more visitors return to Rwanda. Before the war Nyungwe was showing promise as a tourist attraction, drawing as many as 3,000 people annually. Yet tourism alone certainly can’t save the park. There is no better way to appreciate that than by hiring a guide to take you to see the gold miners. These men, working without legal permits in crews of 20 or more, dig out streambeds into enormous pits. They generally make a dollar a day. While Fimbel and other researchers have begun to assess the damage done to the ecosystem by the miners, little has been done to stop them. There are 2,000 miners in Nyungwe. They won’t be turning into 2,000 guides anytime soon.

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