I grew up in a remote corner of southern Tanzania and can still today recall memories of nightly visits by elephants into our garden or the turbulence when a troop of baboons raiding my mother’s tomato plantation- for a little boy this was prime game viewing from the veranda. Sometime during this early childhood, the dream of working with big animals grew in the little boy’s mind. The road map to get there was to pursue the right education, find a job, hopefully in Africa and live my dream.
While studying zoology and conservation biology and teaching research at university, it was easy for me to understand the anger of local communities who had their crops damaged by baboons, buffalos or bush pigs - my mother expressed the same anger when her tomatoes or papaya was gone in a few minutes. It was with a sense of satisfaction we settled bad feelings among villages by introducing solutions with chilli ropes.
I was lucky to grow up in a time to have seen glimpse of the sheer majesty and grandeur of Mother Africa’s flagship wilderness areas. A time when wildlife still was bountiful across the countryside. Travel back over the years I saw that things were changing rapidly, deterioration of eco-system, rapid population growth and my childhood Africa had suddenly moved into the fast lane of good and bad development putting enormous pressure on nature.
At some point it became clear for me that research alone will not save the habitats nor the species that makes Africa so unique. Over the years I had come across Conservation Organizations that were making a difference on ground. I have also been fortunate to work with field conservationists and shared the struggle to save charismatic species including mountain gorillas, elephants, rhinos, and giant pandas. In 2011 i joined a field team in the Bwindi Gorilla census and was deeply impressed by the passion and courage of the only female ranger that participated. Today I see a trend that more and more women become rangers and working the field, but we still need more brave women now when we build next generation of conservateurs.
Looking back in the rear mirror, two things that have enriched my personal and professional life come to my mind. Years back in the small town of Musanze in Rwanda I met with some conservationists who were telling stories of protecting important forest “islands” in the midst of vast agriculture landscape. There at the table was Madeleine Nyiratuza, she talked with great passion about “stitching together forest patches with corridors to help save species” on the Nile-Congo divide.
Later I learned about the fragmented Gishwati forest that was the home for an important population of the endemic golden monkey and for chimpanzees. A small NGO Forest of Hope was her platform for strengthening the capacity of local farmers to reduce conflicts between them and the Managers of the Gishwati Forest Reserve. Luckily at that time we (WWF-Sweden) could divert some funding to the work of Forest for Hope and this continued for some years. Thanks to Madeleines” passionnee de la nature” and hard work of the forest for hope team they turned these forest patches into a national park, Gishwati-Mukura PN. The importance of Gishwati-Mukura forest is about how the conservation community can develop win-win solutions to manage small populations and habitat patches in a landscape where pressure for agricultural land is extremely high. With increasing pressure on natural habitat from a rapid growing population we must already start to develop conservation solutions on how to manage fragmented landscapes and small populations- and here the Gishwati Mukura is a raw model how to work.
Also in Musanze in 2015, i was privileged to participate in the 11th Kwita Izina – gorilla naming ceremony. Twenty-four (24) gorilla babies were named and i was honored to name one of them from the great SUSA family. The name chosen was Ikifuzo which means wish; this was without doubt the most prestigious moment in my life.Over the years WWF Sweden have been supporting IGCP work with Mountain gorillas and I have been fortunate to manage the project for more than a decade. I have often told supporters back in Sweden the story of the Susa dynasty, raised financial support to IGCP and now I was honored to name a gorilla baby from that family.
Many thanks to IGCP for playing a crucial role in ensuring that we still have mountain gorillas in the cloud forests of Virunga and Bwindi. In the coming years I would like IGCP to continue to lead innovative conservation in the challenging environment. And my dream scenario for the future is an IGCP that takes on a role as an incubator to build next generation of conservateurs. If we today foster passionate conservationists and they pick up positions in government institutions they will be the one who “run the show” for the coming 40 years or so- if we get things right now, then the future looks bright for mountain gorillas.