In this so troubled time for East Africa there are some exciting glimmers of hope for societies and conservation.
Stand on any of East Africa’s high mountains and look east to some terrifying developments. Al-Qaeda militia are gathering on Kenya’s borders. The drought in Tsavo decimated the hippo population and spurned the bushmeat trade.
But look west and it’s a different universe. In the Congo, once one of the most turbulent spots on earth, there is a smell of peace, and long-time conservationists have smiles on their faces.
Recently an old friend, John Lukas, General Director of the White Oak Conservation Center, asked me if we might consider restarting tourism to the Congo.
John has maintained an oasis of conservation in that troubled region for nearly 30 years, the Epulu Research Station. His first interest was the rare okapi, found only in the Ituri, but since then his center has expanded and supported a wide array of other research.
Terese and John Hart, probably Africa’s most professional, dedicated long-term field scientists, worked even further away from Epulu’s oasis, among the Congolese pygmies and besieged communities decimated by decades of war.
The Harts raised a family while they researched in the “Heart of Darkness”. They were sometimes out of touch for weeks. In the worst of times, sane conservationists wondered what the hell they thought they could do in a part of Africa that Joseph Conrad had clearly labeled “out of reach”.
Well, they unearthed remarkable science about bonobos and newly discovered primates, and conducted the only good social science of the pygmies bushmeat trade, among so much more. And now, Terese has established promising beginnings to creating what would be Africa’s largest single conservation area, named for the time being as “TL2″.
This oblique, geographical reference to one of the most wondrous, colorful if not magical places on earth is typical of the Hart’s low-key but ever-steady science.
In an email to me over the weekend Terese remarked, “I believe that the situation has been improving for the last several years and with the right engagement tourism is definitely possible.”
Incredible. The last time I took tourists into the Congo was in 1979.
The southern Sudan, where impressed child soldiers created what was called with primitive burlesque, the Lords Resistance Army, there really now is peace after a generation, and a new and massive national park has been created.
I hope to write much more in the coming days about the Sudan’s Boma National Park, and about “TL2″. These incredible areas hold promise not just for the conservation of bongo and bonobo, as well as other extraordinarily rare animals and plants, but the promise of peace to their society.
Rwanda’s gorilla project has proved that the revenue tourists provide can exceed almost any other exploitation of natural wilderness, and if managed properly can lead to increased social development.
It’s not a stand-alone model, but it is remarkable that through the many troubles Rwanda suffered after the gorilla project was started, the health of Parcs de volcans continued to improve, including the size of the mountain gorilla population. Without tourism, this wouldn’t have been possible.
And the health of that single albeit most important conservation project in Rwanda is arguably one of the reasons Rwanda is now stable and prosperous.
Keep your fingers crossed! I’ll be writing more about these exciting areas in the weeks to come.