New Conservationists Graduate from Local University in Democratic Republic of Congo

4/2/2007

Success of Program Defies Region�s Recent History of Turmoil

North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo In a remarkable achievement amid the continuing turmoil of the Democratic Republic of Congo, 50 students recently graduated from the nations first formally accredited conservation university.

The emotional ceremony at the Tayna Center for Conservation Biology (TCCB) in a remote region of eastern Congo took place on March 14, a week before political violence erupted anew in the capital, Kinshasa, 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) to the west.

Russell A. Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International (CI) and one of the worlds foremost primatologists, presided over the universitys first graduation since it opened in 2003. CI and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI) have supported the initiative since its inception in an effort to build local conservation capacity.

These new graduates are such a positive force for their countrys future, Mittermeier said. They are now qualified to manage Congos valuable biodiversity its tropical forests and wildlife to help local communities that have endured so much hardship in the past decade.

The TCCB is a unique initiative in Africa, started and managed by local communities with conservation biology as the sole focus. In 2006, President Joseph Kabila issued a decree making TCCB the nations first community run university licensed to confer three-year degrees in higher education.

Graduating students began their studies as the country emerged from one of Africas worst conflicts, the seven-year Congo civil war that killed an estimated 3 million people. In the ensuing three years, most of the tin-roofed university buildings were constructed, including three large classrooms, a computer laboratory and a library.

Mittermeier announced that CIs Global Conservation Fund has secured $100,000 U.S. to further support the TCCB, and that CI is making the university its highest priority for sustainable future funding. He noted the important role the new conservationists will fill as climate change makes Congos remaining tropical forests a crucial resource for storing atmospheric carbon. Few people realize that tropical forest destruction contributes at least 20 percent of the total carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is more emissions than all the worlds cars and trucks, Mittermeier said. These young conservationists will be contributing to the well-being of their communities and the world by managing and protecting Congos forests.

Pierre Kakule Vwirasihikya, who received the 2005 Conde Nast Traveler Environment Award for helping to start the TCCB and nearby Tayna Gorilla Reserve, called the graduation a symbol of hope for his country.

We are preparing for the inevitability of peace, Kakule said. Our country will soon be in the hands of these new students who are ready to ensure that our resources are used in a sustainable way and our communities can develop economically.

The TCCB was founded in 2003 by local non-government organizations in a federation of community-based nature reserve projects in eastern Congo called the Union of Associations for Gorilla Conservation and Development in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (UGADEC). These groups now are creating new protected areas between Kahuzi-Biega and Maiko National Parks with Grauers gorillas (eastern lowland gorilla) as the flagship species.

In a unique program with the government, UGADEC has created two new reserves totaling 2,300 square kilometers (888 square miles) that protect gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants, okapis, and other species. Six more reserves are planned in the next two years.

The students received full scholarships and were awarded state-sanctioned Associates Degrees. They will return to their communities to work in conservation management and biodiversity studies. In return, their families are converting large tracts of traditional community lands into protected reserves managed by the newly graduated conservationists.

The TCCB is supported by a partnership between CI, DFGFI, and the Jane Goodall Institute, which provided a hydroelectric plant and small micro-projects to improve the local economy. Additional funds were provided by the Central African Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE) of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), CIs Global Conservation Fund, and the United Nations Environmental Program for Great Apes (GRASP). A fundraising program for a long-term trust fund was launched in 2005 by actor Sigourney Weaver, the honorary chair of DFGFI.

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The Global Conservation Fund finances the creation, expansion, and long-term management of protected areas in the worlds biodiversity hotspots, high-biodiversity wilderness areas, and important marine regions.

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