Biodiversity and Conservation – Days 82 and 83

Posted on May 27, 2012

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I have to say I think I have been blessed by the people I’ve been meeting during this mini adventure. Maybe it’s the expression I wear that diverts the idiots, not sure, but I’m glad it’s working. The night before the start of the two-day biodiversity and conservation conference I was sat in the reception of my digs reading, struggling to digest an enormous plate of rice and beans before heading to bed, when I was approached.

Halfway through a chapter a young man asked me if he could join my table. “Oh here we go I thought,” but with a quick glance up I saw he too was clutching a book. “Sure, go ahead,” I motioned to the empty chair.

At least if I’m forced into a conversation it will be someone with a modicum of intellect, I consoled myself.

In fact he didn’t bother me at all. After about 30 minutes I instigated the banter because I wanted to know what non-fiction he was reading. A few moments later I discovered I was sat with a charming, fellow scientist. Dr Bryce Carslon is an assistant professor at the College of Liberal Arts at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, USA. He joined the department of anthropology after completing his PhD at Emory University and he’s in Uganda to carry out research in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park as well as Kibale National Park.

I was absolutely delighted and somewhat shocked to find another like-minded person at my hostel. It was nice to be able to have an in-depth chat with someone about my study who also had a very good knowledge of both my species (Cordia millenii and the chimps, Pan troglodytes). I was also fascinated to learn about his work too. He’s investigating the dietary ecology of wild chimps by analysing the stable isotopic makeup of their hair. The end goal is to be able to develop a method of being able to reconstruct an organism’s dietary history from a single strand of  hair which could reveal what our evolutionary ancestors were eating – very complicated stuff, and I was slightly in awe. How on earth he was intended to collect hair samples intrigued me. You can’t exactly go up to an ape and pluck one out. He has to be very patient and wait for the animals to groom each other or themselves and then riffle through the undergrowth afterwards. I wish him lots of luck. We ended up jabbering for four hours and I’ve promised him a pint on his one-day stop-over in London on his return flight home.

Sated on beans and stimulating conversation I hit the sack at around quarter to midnight, well past my bedtime. The next morning was a struggle to get up, but I arrived at the conference half an hour early to avoid rush hour traffic jams, register and collect the various bumpf being handed out. Of course there was no need to be punctual because typically the conference started nearly 40 minutes late.

In summary some of the issues discussed over the last two days were of relevance to my thesis: the rate of deforestation; initiatives aimed at private landowners and farmers on how best to preserve the landscape while still earning a living; human-wildlife conflict issues; tourism and habituation of endangered primate species and zoonotic diseases (human and wildlife disease cross-species transmission).

At the end of my thesis I am expected to make a series of recommendations. I could actually write a separate thesis on just this given what I’ve learnt and discovered.  But one recommendation will be specifically about what future does the tree species Cordia millenii have in Uganda for wild chimps.

One scheme currently being lobbied at private landowners is Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES). It’s an attempt to attach an economic value to being eco-friendly while enhancing their livelihoods. It’s run the world over, but one NGO here is running PES in several districts in Uganda – The EcoTrust. So far two thousand six hundred farmers have signed up to the scheme in western and middle Uganda. Now the organisation is looking at districts in the east of the country.

Curbing deforestation is potentially a cost-effective way of reducing carbon emissions – which is contributing to global warming and climate change. The United Nations pledged funding to developing countries to reduce deforestation an initiative known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+). REDD+ could be incorporated into global carbon markets under the next international climate treaty which IF successful, could generate billions of dollars in forest conservation from wealthy countries.

In an area called Manafa, next to the district of Mbale, in the ea­st of the Uganda, private landowners are being encouraged to retain their forests or plant alongside their agricultural crops a choice of ten indigenous seedlings – ideally a ratio of 50:50. If they comply with the criteria drawn up they receive payments. Yesterday was the launch of the project.

It’s not easy convincing a Ugandan farmer to think long-term because most people want to see an immediate return due to poverty levels; slow-growing species requires patience and commitment. Over the last two days I have learnt that one of the indigenous seedlings being offered is Cordia millenii.  Hooray! The tree can take up to 40 years or more to fully mature and it needs a lot of light. I’ve learnt that the ideal crop to grow alongside it is coffee – which needs a lot of shade. But we can’t get too excited. There has been a lot of discussion about whether Cordia seedlings can be grown successfully in forests if they are specifically planted, a process called enrichment planting. Natural regeneration is considered the best method for maintaining tropical forests. Any seeds which are swallowed by animals pass out during defecation and germinate well in faeces. The seeds end up being scattered throughout the forest according to how large the animals’ home range is. Some of the issues experts have flagged up for “enrichment planting” include the type of soil and environment seedlings are put in – they need mixed forest, like the Budongo Forest Reserve. There has to be regular monitoring on climbers and browsing animals; viruses and insects that could all hamper or stop growth. Then there’s a very high level of care needed over a long period. Another concern is that some trees simply won’t grow in stands. It’s an enigma. I’ve been told that mahogany, teak and paper mulberry are good examples. They have all been tried commercially and did well at first but then failed to continue growing.

Cordia millenii plantations alongside coffee may be a solution and right now all eyes will be watching Manafa to see if this is indeed the case, but it doesn’t solve the problem of illegal logging in Uganda’s forests. It’s estimated that Uganda is losing 80,000 ha of forest every year and in less than 30 years the country could be forced to import wood. A frightening statistic. The survival of primates and other animals in these areas is threatened due to habitat loss, not to mention the climatic knock-on-effect that will be felt elsewhere. So while the Cordia tree may have some hope of seeing in the next century, the same may not be the case for our closest kin the chimpanzee unless the natural forests are saved now.

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