By Francis Kokutse
With close to 55 ethnic groups in a population of 2 million, Gabon would have been a very divided country like most African countries. However, this is not the case because the country has found and used forest conservation as a tool to bring the various ethnic groups together despite their diversity.
“Without the forest, we do not have any culture. Our people use it for food, shelter and medicine and so, we are opening up the country for others to visit to see how we have been united by the forest our forebears depended on,” said, the executive secretary of the Agence Nationale Des Parc Nationaux (ANPN), Christian Tchemambela.
One of the parks, 6,747 square kilometre Ropanda Walker Arboretum, and 13 others that are being used to promote the country’s conservation initiative now cover about 11 per cent of the country’s landmass. They have helped to turn Gabon into the world’s second largest rainforest after the Amazon. “The success of all we have done is because as a people, our culture depends on the forest. Our diverse culture is guided by how our elders lived, conserving the forest and it is what we have come to practice,” Tchemambela said.
For him, “without the forest, our culture will disappear. Monkeys and Chimpanzees have always been part of how our people lived and so, conservation is nothing new to us. What we are doing now is to add a bit of research to make it sustainable.” It is no wonder that, the country has been able to build a sanctuary for gorillas at Loango. The park which is 1,550 square kilometres was created in 2002. Scientists working at the park say, the density of gorillas at Loango is approximately one per square kilometre. This is based on studies using genetic analysis of faeces as well as remotely triggered camera traps. For this reason, they estimate that 1,500 gorillas live there.
Gabon lies on the equator, and around 88% of its land is covered with tropical forest. This makes forest cover the main ecosystem of the country with a rich and varied fauna (including the western lowland gorilla, chimpanzees and nearly 95,000 forest elephants), a diverse bird population, estimated at more than 600 species and a wide range of flora also estimated to be more than 6,000 specimens – with more yet to be identified by scientists.
The minister of water and environment, Lee White, said the country’s conservation efforts had been successful because of the involvement of the country’s researchers. They have been in the forefront since 2012, working to promote Gabon’s protection of marine habitats through the Gabon Bleu (Blue Gabon) initiative, which has led to the declaration of 27% of marine waters as protected areas.
White said a lot of work has also been done through research to develop an eco-tourism project as well as create a sustainable wood logging operation. He added that, studies have shown that sustainable logging and forestry can help the woodlands refresh at a faster rate than if the forest is left alone.
He said work by these researchers have created the atmosphere for controlled logging. This will help preserve the country’s forest to ensure that there is sustained growth in the economy as well as the provision of jobs, whilst ensuring the stability and maintenance of the forest for carbon absorption.
Currently, the country is the most carbon positive nation on the planet, with current carbon dioxide emissions estimated at 40 million tonnes per annum, but through its forest it has capacity to absorb 140 million tonnes.
White said the most recent survey conducted of forest elephants, which was released in December 2021, shows that, the country has become home to 60-70% of the surviving global forest elephant population. According to him, this places stress on the country’s resources to protect its biodiversity and has seen a rise in human animal conflict at the periphery of the rainforests.
Instability in surrounding countries, for example poaching in neighbouring Cameroon and political crises in the Central African Republic, have led many at risk animals to cross into Gabon seeking a more secure sanctuary.
White said “protecting the country’s biodiversity comes at a cost to the people of Gabon and if the country, which is a developing nation that is increasingly serving as a refuge for under-threat species, is to succeed in its biodiversity objectives international support will be needed to share the burden,” White added.
The technical advisor for the ANPN, Omer Ntougou said some of the researchers have concentrated their work at the Ropanda Walker Arboretum, “The French Development Agency has provided assistance to these researchers with the building of a school and a national centre for science research to study the environment further in order to understand the country’s ecosystem,” he added.