Great Ape Trust formalizes Rwanda agreement

Great Ape Trust of Iowa has signed a formal agreement with the Republic of Rwanda that gives the Gishwati Area Conservation Project the power to manage the reforestation of Gishwati Forest, home to 15 endangered chimpanzees.

Benjamin Beck, the trust’s conservation director, who leads the Gishwati project, last week signed the agreement with Stanislaus Kamanzi, a top Rwanda environmental official, at a meeting in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. Ted Townsend, founder of the ape trust and Earthpark and the co-founder of the massive effort to restore and expand Gishwati, had signed the deal earlier.

The agreement capped months of negotiations among the trust and Rwanda government officials. The trust and Rwanda President Paul Kagame have dubbed the area the Forest of Hope. Cattle grazing and clear-cutting had reduced the forest to 1 percent of its original size, but now there are plans to replant thousands of acres.

The project is seen as as an economic initiative and an attempt to save the isolated chimps, who may eventually be connected by a forest corridor with potential mates living in the Nyungwe forest to the south. The project corridor is expected to cover 31 miles.

Most Rwandans are farmers whose families consume virtually everything they grown. That includes 350,000 residents in the immediate Gishwati area. Rwanda, one-fifth the size of Iowa, has 10 million people — more than three times as many as Iowa. The Rwandan government wants to shift residents to new jobs in ecotourism, high-tech industries, craft-making and other jobs that don’t rely on an increasingly eroded landscape, known as the Land of a Thousand Hills.

“Perhaps more important than saving the heretofore doomed chimpanzees, the people living near this forest have been respected and included, and are taking ownership of their forest’s rebirth as a symbol of their children’s future,” Townsend said in a statement.

The ape trust and Earthpark agreed to raise money for the forest corridor over the next three years.

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