Just four years ago it was a single vision shared by the president of Rwanda and a businessman in Iowa. Today, the Gishwati Area Conservation Program (GACP) is a successful conservation initiative that has culminated with the designation of Gishwati Forest as Rwanda’s newest national park and an international tourism destination.
“To a conservationist, nothing can be more satisfying than the restoration of a damaged ecosystem and its designation as a national park that will secure its biodiversity in perpetuity,” said Dr. Benjamin Beck, conservation director of Great Ape Trust, which directs and supports GACP. “Even better is local support for the park, by those who previously might have exploited its resources for short-term gain.”
These were exactly the goals articulated by Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ted Townsend in a 2007 Clinton Global Initiative agreement that gave Great Ape Trust responsibility for management, restoration, and protection of the extremely degraded Gishwati Forest in western Rwanda.
“Despite widespread skepticism, our team and our Rwandan colleagues exceeded all of our goals in just four short years,” says Peter Clay, the Trust’s special advisor to the Gishwati program. “In an era of devastating environmental setbacks, the Gishwati story shines as a model for conservation success.”
Through demarcation of legal boundaries and the annexation of illegally occupied land, the protected area of Gishwati has increased an impressive 67 percent from 2,190 to 3,665 acres. Tree cover and diversity have increased. A small population of East African chimpanzees, once teetering on the brink of extinction, has grown 54 percent from 13 to 20 apes-likely the first time the Gishwati chimpanzee population has increased in more than 40 years. Endangered golden monkeys and mountain monkeys are rebounding as well.
Today, the Trust’s Gishwati Area Conservation Program – led by Rwandan, Madeleine Nyiratuza – employs 26 Rwandans, and is an economic engine in the communities surrounding Gishwati. Because of the vigilence and dedication of GACP’s ecoguards, people have ceased illegal activities in the core of the forest. Students and working adults in 15 schools and 10 cooperatives as well as officials of the Rutsiro District government are partnering with GACP to help restore Gishwati.
Dr. Rebecca Chancellor and other scientists are studying how the chimpanzees make their living in such a small forest. New animals and plants, some previously unknown to science, are discovered regularly. Scientists and students from Drake University in Des Moines are studying the best reforestation techniques for Gishwati, keeping careful track of tree growth, and exploring ways to connect Gishwati with other forest areas.
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