Four years ago, no one would have blamed Pierre Kakule if he had turned in his conservation credentials, abandoned his quest to establish a nature reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) North Kivu Province, and returned to his ancestral home there to live out a modestly comfortable life as a secondary Batangi tribal chief.
Instead, this remarkable conservationist's vision has become an exemplar of how biodiversity conservation can benefit human welfare. Through a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and in collaboration with Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI), Conservation International (CI) supports Kakule's initiative. It is remaking the lives of thousands of war-weary indigenous people who depend on healthy forest ecosystems and stable communities for their livelihoods and, in this case, sometimes their very survival.
As Stability Returns, So Does Opportunity
A comparatively modest financial investment has helped to establish the Tayna Gorilla Reserve as the nation's first private, community-run wildlife sanctuary on traditional land near the Tayna River. It has also financed the nearby construction and operation of the DRC's first university devoted to conservation, along with schools, health programs, a clinic, and other desperately needed social services.
This grassroots effort by Congolese conservationists to champion the biological heritage of their region and improve the lives of forest dwellers is a unique model for seven more indigenous community reserves for conservation and economic and social development, now under development in eastern DRC. As stability returns, so do the international aid agencies that have been unable to operate in these areas because they were so dangerous. Biodiversity conservation, in this case, is literally saving human lives.
If At First You Don't Succeed...
Kakule, a former senior warden in the DRC's Virunga National Park, persuaded two paramount chiefs, or mwamis, to set aside 220,000 acres of communal land for the wildlife reserve. In return for a ban on logging, mining, farming, and other commercial natural resource extraction activities, the chiefs wanted a compensatory quid pro quo for their tribes. Appeals for financial support to eight foreign conservation groups were rejected. The Tayna project seemed to be dead, and Kakule's dream was fading fast.
Then came a break. The Dian Fossey gorilla fund liked the idea of a new wildlife reserve and provided some support, but the small Atlanta-based nonprofit had limited funds. In 2003, recognizing a unique opportunity, CI became a partner with the group. Juan Carlos Bonilla, head of CI's Central Africa program, negotiated $2.8 million in USAID funds and CI's Global Conservation Fund added close to $1 million.
The money was used to train and equip guards for the Tayna Gorilla Reserve and to fund the construction and operation of the Tayna Center for Conservation Biology, along with other education, health, and social welfare programs. It also financed planning for the seven additional community reserve programs in the DRC. Says Bonilla: "We recognized this as an opportunity to further implement CI's strategic plan to combine biodiversity protection with human welfare as an integral part of our overall strategy."
Conservation For a Higher Education
Located just outside the reserve boundary, the university was completed in 2004 and built for about $500,000 by hundreds of local villagers working under the constant threat of theft and violence by militias. The campus encompasses four large classrooms, a library, computer room, administrative building, two dormitories, and cafeteria. The university has 18 resident faculty members, with visiting professors and experts from the international conservation community invited to teach specialized courses.
Some 300 students are currently pursuing three-year, state-sanctioned B.Sc. degrees in research and conservation biology; conservation and management of protected areas; and communication and environmental education. After graduation, they will return to their communities to work as field researchers, rangers, wardens, and protected area managers. Some will be qualified as teachers, journalists, and outreach workers.
The impact of the Tayna University – which operates at a cost of about $1,200 per student, per year for full tuition, plus room and board – is remarkable and far reaching. In addition to construction and support jobs, the regional population now has access to doctors, nurses, and medical care that includes the services of a 28-bed health center, complete with an operating theater. Agricultural extension and improvement programs support food security in the region, and education for primary and high school children is provided. There is even a local radio station that broadcasts programming on conservation, politics, music, culture, and women's and family issues.
Says Bonilla: "This represents a revolution in the way we are doing conservation. It's an innovative, grassroots, lean approach. We serve as facilitator and the people themselves decide how they want to solve their own problems."