Chimpanzees Key to Iowa-Rwanda Forest Restoration Plan

DES MOINES, Iowa, January 17, 2008 (ENS) – Two Iowa organizations have partnered with the government of Rwanda to create the Rwanda National Conservation Park on land that used to be one of the largest forests in the country.

The Rwandan government, Great Ape Trust of Iowa and Earthpark Monday announced that the Gishwati Forest Reserve in Rwanda’s Western Province is the future site of the conservation park and chimpanzee field study area.

Much of Gishwati now looks like
this with small farms covering
deforested hillsides interspersed
with patches of forest. (Photo
courtesy Great Ape Trust of Iowa)

Extensive deforestation occurred in this area when refugees were allowed to resettle following the civil war and genocide a decade ago. Grazing and farming have degraded water quality and caused soil erosion, flooding, and landslides – as well as the isolation of a small population of chimpanzees.

The restoration and ecological research effort will focus on reestablishing a self-sustaining population of chimpanzees in the forest as an international model for biodiversity restoration.

The national conservation park project was unveiled at the Clinton Global Initiative by Rwanda President Paul Kagame and Ted Townsend, the founder of Great Ape Trust and Earthpark.

President Kagame said the joint 10 year program would develop both a national conservation park and a field station for reforestation and conservation of great apes, including mountain gorillas, which currently number around 700 worldwide.

Great Ape Trust is a scientific research facility in Des Moines that conducts noninvasive interdisciplinary studies of the cognitive and communicative capabilities of all four species of great apes – chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.

Earthpark, a learning campus proposed near Pella, Iowa, plans to plant a tropical rainforest, build a large aquarium and host hundreds of species of plants and small animals to demonstrate sustainable and restorative solutions to ecological threats.

Ted Townsend, center, and
Benjamin Beck, right tour
Gishwati with Rwandan hosts.
(Photo courtesy Great Ape Trust)

A team from Great Ape Trust and Earthpark toured the Gishwati region this month, in the company of representatives from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority and Rwanda National Forestry Authority.

“This was the first step in what will be a very long but powerful journey. What we’ve learned about Gishwati has given us an even bigger vision of what can be accomplished in Rwanda,” Townsend said. “It’s a signature moment to participate in this conservation effort that is new and beyond anything attempted before.”

In Rwanda, Townsend and Dr. Benjamin Beck, director of conservation at Great Ape Trust, met with President Kagame and Patricia Hajabakiga, Minister of Lands, Environment, Forestry, Water and Mines.

“The significance of this project is twofold – the restoration of forests and biodiversity in Gishwati and the improved livelihood of those people living in the region,” Minister Hajabakiga said. “This is important to Gishwati, important to Rwanda and important to the world. To see the hills of Gishwati covered with forest again will be beautiful.”

Scores of villagers from the Gishwati region of Rwanda turned out for details from government officials and Great Ape Trust representatives about the proposed conservation initiative.

Stakeholders have established goals for the Gishwati project that include creation of the park and restoration of natural biodiversity, with special emphasis on chimpanzees as a keystone species.

These children collected
firewood from stumps on
farmland near the border of
the Gishwati Forest Reserve.
Firewood is their primary source
of fuel for cooking. (Photo
courtesy Great Ape Trust)

Other goals include restoration of water quality, reduced soil erosion and flooding, fewer landslides and increased sequestration of carbon. A goal crucial to making the entire project work is the generation of income through ecotourism, investment opportunities and local employment.

The Rwandan government has said ecotourism will be key to the country’s future economic growth. Restoring the forest and reestablishing a self-sustaining northwestern chimpanzee population are important to that effort, President Kagame has said.

“Poverty is a threat to conservation, so we must simultaneously protect and study the Gishwati chimpanzees, expand their forest habitat, and foster the economic development of the local human population,” Beck said.

Great Ape Trust will be the first international conservation organization to focus on Gishwati. “President Kagame’s inspiring recognition of the importance of biodiversity is a driving force for our efforts,” said Beck.
The Iowa organizations have an annual budget of $150,000 for the Gishwati conservation work.

Once the second largest indigenous forest in Rwanda, Gishwati covered 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) in the early 1900s. By the late 1980s, Gishwati was about one-fourth its original size.

Resettlement by refugees following the 1994 genocide reduced the forest to just 600 hectares (1,500 acres). Reforestation efforts during the past several years have nearly doubled that forested area.

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