Nyungwe National Park has the largest population of endangered Eastern chimpanzees in the African nation of Rwanda. But big changes along the borders of the park—a mix of farmland, woodlots, and tea and pine plantations—may not be good news for the chimps.
Beth Kaplin, core faculty member in the Department of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England (AUNE), and doctoral candidate Robin Martino will head to Rwanda soon to study land uses in these areas and how changes may affect the chimpanzees in collaboration with Rwandan colleagues. A $46,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will fund the year-long study, which began in July.
Plans for massive logging of pine trees in the border areas, where chimps often range and feed, could have a big impact. For instance, the large-seeded fruit trees that are a major source of their food may be decimated.
It’s not just a problem for the chimps. The Rwandan economy increasingly depends on tourists, many of whom come to see the chimps and other wildlife in national parks. The goal of the project is to help the Rwandan government make sound, science-based decisions about the park, perhaps creating buffer zones to protect the chimps and other wildlife.
“One chimpanzee group’s home range includes part of the pine plantation buffer zone, scheduled to be logged, so there is an economic and ecological incentive for creating a buffer zone,” said Robin Martino, a PhD student in environmental studies who has been involved with research in Rwanda since the mid-1990s.
The Research in Rwanda
Martino said the project integrates three components: ecological, technological, and social—and the results have the potential to influence national policy concerning the buffer zone. Students from AUNE, and bachelor’s and master’s students from the National University of Rwanda will observe chimpanzees along forest edges, and map vegetation types using GIS technology, satellite imaging, and aerial photography, then verify those data on the ground.
They will also interview local residents for information on conflicts between humans and chimpanzees, where chimps enter and exit the forest, and if they ever eat chimps. The border areas around the national park have some of the highest human population densities in Africa, and what happens here can impact residents, many of whom make their living by farming or cutting wood.
The researchers will generate a detailed map of forest-cover types where chimps range, and will also present seminars on their findings in Washington, D.C. Besides helping the Rwandan government to conserve chimpanzees and manage national forests in Rwanda, the project will help build the capacity for conservation management among the national park’s staff and students and faculty at the National University of Rwanda.
The USFWS’ grant is through one of its Multinational Species Conservation Funds, set up to help preserve endangered wildlife species outside the United States.
Kaplin has been involved in ongoing research in Rwanda for the last twenty years, some of those through AUNE’s Center for Tropical Ecology and Conservation, of which she is director. Recently, she launched the Regional Network for Conservation Educators in the Albertine Rift (RNCEAR) to promote collaboration on regional conservation issues.