I arrived in Gabon nearly 3 weeks ago to study how communities interact with their natural resources in a landscape where commercial bushmeat hunting is on the rise. The following 10 photos perfectly sum up my first weeks here.
The 10 villages I’m working with all participate in the Community Wildlife Project with the Poulsen Lab. The CWP has trained local “parabiologists,” or citizen scientists, in each village to carry out participatory wildlife monitoring, reporting on wildlife sightings along established wildlife transects, and on the bushmeat trade around their village. The parabiologists also take part in monthly environmental education lessons to raise their awareness of ecology, conservation, and the basics of graphing the data they collect.
The evidence of large logging companies is everywhere. From having to pause village chief interviews to wait for the loud truck to pass, to pulling over our car to wait for a series of 6 trucks like the one above to clear the narrow, windy dirt road.
It’s apparent, even at first glance, how important the forest is to rural livelihoods, which my research delves further into. All along the road, the forest runs right up to the edge of the villages, like a dark green wall towering over the houses.
Rural communities depend on bush meat as a source of protein and income, and even use the pelts in ceremonies (the ones pictured will be used to make drums). Hunting doesn’t pose a great risk to wildlife when done for subsistence, i.e. for consumption at household level. However, the commercialization of the bushmeat trade has placed a lot of pressure on wildlife, ranging from small squirrels to the large red river hogs. The CWP started as a way to test whether participatory monitoring and environmental education can be a solution to reduce the growing commercial bushmeat trade.
From my very first interview with a village chief, to seeing first-hand the damage elephants inflict on manioc plantations (the staple crop here), the human-elephant conflict has come up in my work nearly every day. Elephants are the single most perceived threat to their livelihoods, according to village chiefs and community members, but the elephant’s legal protection from poaching has made this conflict quite a sensitive subject.
Communities can play a critical role in conservation by integrating local knowledge into environmental management. This summer, I am working with communities to map how they use and value their natural resources, to then see how this information can be used to protect areas that are both biologically and culturally important.
This group of women from the village Massaha, showing the map they created, found the activity particularly beneficial, explaining that they tend not to think of their village and natural resources from a bird’s eye view.
I originally started this project focusing on forest and wildlife resources, but it quickly dawned on me that water is just as, if not more, important to these communities. Serenely tucked away in the secondary forest near their plantations, the typical spring supplies water for agriculture and has a portion blocked off for drinking.
GRAINE, a Gabonese government-sponsored program, has been popping up across the region, employing villagers and clearing large areas of forest to stimulate the rural economy through agriculture. Although many of GRAINE’s plantations are in their earliest stages, and despite the striking sight of only a few remaining trees where there was once forest, people seem to be hopeful of the economic benefits for their communities.
Remarkably, Gabon is about 85% forest, as you can easily from satellite imagery. Although most communities depend on agriculture, the remaining expanses of forest show the important role it still plays in local livelihoods through its wood, plant, and wildlife resources. (Satellite image courtesy of DigitalGlobe Foundation).
I’m looking forward to continuing to work and learn this summer.