Gabon to Create Huge Park System for Wildlife

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
September 4, 2002
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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.

NGO Collaboration

Conservationists are ecstatic about the set-aside decision, calling it a new standard for other nations to follow.

"It was always our dream to establish a national park system, but we thought it would take ten years to put in place, and that we'd have to do it site by site," said White.

The announcement is the culmination of more than 15 years of research, exploration, and storytelling.

Conservation groups such as WCS, Conservation International, and the World Wildlife Fund have worked with the Gabon government for years, documenting the country's wildlife resources, studying the effects of logging and hunting, and monitoring wildlife populations.

In September 1999, explorer and ecologist Mike Fay embarked on a 15-month expedition to conduct research in the region. In what became known as the "Megatransect," Fay and his team walked more than 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) through the heart of Africa.

The expedition, jointly sponsored by the National Geographic Society and WCS, was conducted the old fashioned way—not in the lab using computer models, but out in the field, collecting data, taking pictures and videos, keeping journals, and battling mosquitoes, swamp water, enervating heat, and the ever-present threat of disease.

Some areas the team traversed had had so little human presence that local gorillas were unaware of the potential dangers that people posed. Instead of running and hiding, they grabbed family members and gathered to gawk at the unfamiliar creatures passing through.

The pictures and stories generated by the expedition told a riveting story of a last-chance opportunity to preserve an irreplaceable corner of Earth.

"President Bongo didn't realize what was out there before seeing the pictures from Mike's Megatransect expedition," said White.

Fay concurred: "It may be a cliché, but a picture is worth a thousand words—more, really. The president had heard all about national parks, sustainable development, reserves, and so on, but until he saw the imagery with his very own eyes, he didn't realize his country had resources beyond timber, manganese, and oil."

Referring to the decision to form the park system, Fay said Bongo "made the decision right then and there, and has acted lightning fast to save and preserve these resources all in one fell swoop."

Together, the wealth of scientific data and the power of the photographs and videotape images convinced the president to set aside what amounts to 10 percent of the country's total land.

Need for Outside Support

"Now the real work is about to start, and the conservation community faces a tremendous challenge," said White.

Developing the infrastructure to support a park system that draws ecotourists will take time, he said. People need to be trained, money raised, systems put in place.

In the long run, the Gabon government hopes that by short-circuiting environmental degradation and focusing on the possibilities of ecotourism, it can make the parks a siren's song to travelers longing to experience one of the last wild places on Earth.

Conservationists emphasized that commitment from the international community is essential to make that happen.

"If we want this constellation of parks to survive beyond the declaration today, it's going to take a significant infusion of money from the outside," said Fay. "If we're serious about conservation and sustainable development, Gabon is a good place to start.

"By setting aside this land, the government has laid down the gauntlet," he said. "Now it's up to the world at large to follow up."

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