for National Geographic News
Gabon, on the West coast of Africa, just took a big step toward becoming one of the world's premier destinations for ecotourists.
President El Hadj Omar Bongo announced in Johannesburg at the World Summit on Sustainable Development that his country will set aside more than 10,000 square miles (26,000 square kilometers) of land to form a national park system protecting 13 separate parks.
Conservationists regard Gabon as one of the last pockets of wilderness in Africa. The parks will protect pristine rain forests, mangroves, savannas, ancient forests, lagoons, marshes, rivers, and canyons.
These landscapes provide vital habitat to everything from sea turtles and whales to forest elephants, rhinos, gorillas, buffalo, and numerous plant and bird species found only in Gabon.
The designated land is under threat from a host of pressures: logging, mining, poaching of elephant tusks and of animals for bushmeat, forest clearing for agriculture, and burning of trees for firewood.
President Bongo's decision is politically risky. The country will lose timber revenues from logging concessions that will have to be canceled or scaled back.
From 50 to 60 logging concessions will be affected, said Lee White, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) who has been studying wildlife populations in Gabon since 1989. "We're trying to work it so that no one individual company takes the brunt, but there is likely to be criticism from the logging and mining communities," said White.
"It's definitely a very courageous decision," he added.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will visit Gabon on Thursday. While there, he plans to visit a tropical rain forest reserve and meet with President Bongo and national and international conservationists.
Conservationists are ecstatic about the set-aside decision, calling it a new standard for other nations to follow.
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