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Rwanda's Gishwati Forest selected as site for historic conservation project

Des Moines, Iowa, USA January 15, 2008 The Rwandan government, Great Ape Trust of Iowa and Earthpark have announced that the Gishwati Forest Reserve is the future site of the Rwanda National Conservation Park, setting into motion one of Africas most ambitious forest restoration and ecological research efforts ever. The selection of Gishwati as the location for Rwandas first national conservation park comes less than three months after the project was unveiled at the Clinton Global Initiative by Rwanda President H.E. Paul Kagame and Ted Townsend, founder of Great Ape Trust and Earthpark.

The Gishwati Forest, in Rwandas Western Province, was deforested in the 1980s by agricultural development and in the 1990s during the resettlement of people following the civil war and genocide. Human encroachment, deforestation, grazing and the introduction of small-scale farming resulted in extensive soil erosion, flooding, landslides and reduced water quality as well as the isolation of a small population of chimpanzees.

A team from Great Ape Trust and Earthpark toured the Gishwati region this month, hosted by representatives from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) and Rwanda National Forestry Authority (NAFA).

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

In addition to tours of Gishwati, 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 (MINITERE).

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.

Following meetings with MINITERE, REMA, NAFA, the Rwandan office for Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN), the National University of Rwanda, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Great Ape Trust, four goals were established for the Gishwati project:

  • Create Rwanda National Conservation Park, defined as conservation of biodiversity in an extensively degraded landscape, populated with low-income small-scale agriculturalists.
  • Restore ecosystem services in the form of improved water quality, reduced soil erosion and flooding, fewer landslides and increased sequestration of carbon.
  • Restore natural biodiversity with special emphasis on chimpanzees as a keystone and flagship species.
  • Generate income through ecotourism, investment opportunity and local employment.

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. This is a formidable but exciting challenge. We and our Rwandan partners are developing some innovative and ambitious solutions that will make this a model. President Kagames inspiring recognition of the importance of biodiversity is a driving force for our efforts. .

Once the second-largest indigenous forest in Rwanda, Gishwati extended 1,0002 km (100,000 hectares or 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 about 62 km (600 hectares or 1,500 acres). Reforestation efforts during the past several years have increased Gishwatis forest to approximately 102 km (1,000 hectares or 2,500 acres).


Contact: Al Setka
Great Ape Trust of Iowa

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