We need to build infrastructure, train a huge number of people, and integrate these national parks into the landscape so that logging companies and traditional land owners have their say. We need to make sure that these people are heard and satisfied.
Then, at the same time, we need to start bringing people in from the outside. We need to develop ecotourism, bring in a lot of foreign aid for the development of these national parks. That's the job we have right now.
We've opened the box, and now we have to figure out what's inside. And we have to make order out of this concept that we've created.
Are there other countries in the central African region that may be interested in following Gabon's lead?
Definitely. We asked the United States government to invest much more heavily in forest conservation in central Africa. We brought together congressmen, State Department people, and USAID. [the U.S. Agency for International Development]. We told them that this needs to happen because these places are being used up and cut down extremely fast. The U.S. government has a critical financial and political role to play.
They said "fine, great, let's do it." And the U.S. government pulled together U.S. $15 million a year for central Africa. That's why Colin Powell came to visit Gabon, to announce this Congo Basin Forest Partnership. The partnership encompasses all the countries in central forest AfricaCameroon, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Equatorial Guinea.
The hard job now is to get that translated into action on the ground in all of these countries. We need more protected areas, more forest management. We need to figure out how people can live on the ground and maintain forest cover and forest biodiversity.
How does bush meat trade affect central Africa?
"Bush meat" is a new term, but the problem is a very old one. The problem is that if human populations go up, and they still try to maintain traditional hunting and gathering ways, wildlife populations go extinct.
When forest penetration increases, people can transport meat over large distances. So wild meat can be provided to a very large number of people easily and economically, and wildlife populations go extinct in areas that are being opened up for logging.
It's a very simple problem, and the simple solution is to manage wildlife, to make people understand that if they hunt in this manner, at this magnitude, that wildlife will go extinct. Make your choice. Do you want wildlife to go extinct? If you don't, you need to do things like create protected areas, manage hunting and logging concessions, and ban the transport of bush meat over large distances.
Militias have been given authority to shoot bush meat poachers on sight in the Central African Republic. Do you think that is a viable solution to the problem?
I was involved in that very same war in the Central African Republic (CAR) from about 1980 to 1984. I saw that place go from the Serengeti of the west to one that had almost no wildlife. Why? Because of the bush meat trade. It was the same old problem, and that was back in 1980, before the phrase "bush meat" was even coined.
Populations of people in Ndjamena, Chad, Khartoom, and Sudan were consuming wildlife that came from the Central African Republic, sometimes 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away, transported by camels and horses. Poachers slaughtered well over 100,000 elephants. They drove the black rhino in northern CAR to extinction. They drove the rhino in southern Sudan to extinction. They are criminals, breaking the laws, and murdering not only animals but people, if they get in their way. Should you kill [these poachers] or not?
I'm not convinced that random killing of poachers is the most effective way to solve the poaching problem. I didn't kill anybody, but I was very involved with that war. We could have solved the problem if we had used our heads rather than just guns. We should have gone to Sudan and Chad and figured out who these people were and where they were coming from exactly. We should have studied the entry points. We should have brought the source country governments into the problem. We should have made an international scandal out of the fact that the Sudanese government has not been serious about wildlife management for decades, and that they allow their people to pillage the resources of neighboring countries. Then I agree that if you head them off at the pass, and they persist and are violent, then you fight fire with fire. But you need to overwhelm them and that takes money. Killing the occasional poacher makes people feel good to think that they're getting the bad guys. I can definitely relate to that. But in reality, unless it's a concerted, organized, and strategic effort, it doesn't have a large or lasting impact.
Does Gabon President Bongo's views on wildlife issues mirror those held by other African leaders?
Most Africans have a very close relationship with the land, even the city people, who are squeamish about bugs and scared to death of gorillas. Most people in Africaincluding presidentshave a more clear understanding of nature and a stronger connection to the Earth than the average citizen in the U.S. or in Europe. Convincing Africans that there should be continued abundance of wildlife, trees and water flowing in creeks isn't difficult.
Each country has its difficulties, its political problems, its influences from the outside, from the left and right. The reaction of various leaders is different in different places. But I think that this wave we've begun will translate into significant conservation action in every country in central Africa. President Bongo can lead the way. He's a very well-respected, regal man. People listen to him. He's an elder, and he's revered as an elder in the region.
Is there another Megatransect in the works?
First, I'm going to visit and do a Megatransect across every single new national park in Gabon and other central African countries as they come up on the map. I'm committed to doing that for sure. That way, I can set the context for those parks. I can get them known. I can show the world what they contain and how good they are. They're all good.
My mission is to make good on our promise to the President of Gabon [of] management systems in every park [and] ecotourism in every park. We need to transform Gabon into the Costa Rica of the African continent. The president wants Gabon to become the Mecca for nature on the planet. He wants it to be a place for those seeking out the natural world to come and find refuge, to repose in this tropical paradise. We have the urgent need to amass large amounts of money to accomplish this task. We need to find at least U.S. $10 million a year to pay for infrastructure, personnel training, and creating management systems in the parks. We need to find investors who will build tourist facilities. Already we have found millions of dollars for our effort, but we are far from where we need to be. I walk around the United States and I find unbelievable wealth. We need to share that wealth with Gabon. We need to accomplish what the president has asked us to do.
In 2004, we're going to expand that vision to the entire continent. We're going to take a low-level aerial flight over the entire continent, going to all of the wildest places in every ecoregion with this airplane. We're going to identify areas in need of conservation and try to figure out a master plan for all of those places. We'll at least work with those people who are working in those places currently to see how we can help.
Are you planning to do Megatransect in any other part of the world?
Maybe, someday. I'd love to do the Guyana Shield, trans-Canada, trans-Alaska, for different reasons. Those are still on the list. Maybe someday I'll get there.
To see what we are talking about go to Gabon National Parks >>
More on the Megatransect from Nationalgeographic.com:
Congo Trek: A Journey Through the Heart of Central Africa
Congo Trekking With the World's Most Adventurous Explorer
More on the Megatransect from National Geographic magazine online:
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