Research in Lopé, mainly through the SEGC research station, has greatly contributed to conservation efforts locally and regionally. These fall in 5 main areas outlined below:
1. Global Warming and Carbon Sequestration Since its inception in 1983, researchers have been collecting continuous data on forest dynamics, weather and tree behaviour at Lopé. These data, the longest records in the region, now form a priceless resource for quantifying carbon stocks and environmental changes in the Congo Basin and linking them to weather patterns, as climate change accelerates. Monthly phenology records for over 800 trees and shrubs, coupled with daily temperature and rainfall records, permit direct quantification of the leafing, flowering and fruiting responses of plants. In turn, this data shows how these trees have been affected by local and global climate. As global climate changes, so are fruiting and leaf production cycles in trees, sometimes leading to dramatic changes in food availability for animals. Prediction and mitigation of these changes may be crucial to wildlife survival.
Permanent plots and transects established in the many different forest types within the National Park now allow us to empirically measure the standing carbon in an intact African forest, the rates of carbon sequestration in forest stands of different ages and thus to verify predictions made on a much larger scale by remote-sensing projects. Data such as these are critical to the growing international carbon markets and post-Kyoto discussions on how value is attributed to carbon stocks. These long term data are unique in the region.
To enable Gabon to negotiate agreements on climate change and participate in the REDD project, we are carrying out comprehensive research on climate change. The goal is to monitor and understand the nature of ongoing and future climate change in Congo Basin Forest Regions, of the sensitivity of the regions forests to this change, and the implications of potential for loss for regional and global weather patterns.
In 2009, as part of a multi-institutional partnership, we undertook the first phase of a climate change initiative for Gabon and carried out a rapid assessment of stocks and flows of carbon in Lopé’s forests. Field measurements of trees and soil in over 100 hectares of forest were combined with remote sensing data, to develop an accurate carbon map for Lopé, and measure changes over time. Preliminary results suggest a strong increase in woody biomass in the park between 1996-2007. These data were presented by the President of the Republic at the COP15 in Copenhagen in December 2009, and helped Gabon to develop a strong international negotiating position for future REDD mechanisms.
Since then, Lopé has remained a key site in the expansion of ANPN's national carbon monitoring program.
2. Wildlife and their Habitats Building good conservation policy requires detailed knowledge of wildlife numbers and ecological needs, as well as quantification of threats. In Central Africa, this knowledge is often hard to come by, even for seemingly familiar species, like the gorilla, chimpanzee or mandrill. Animal ecology research carried out at Lopé now guides species and habitat conservation activities across the region.
Researchers at Lopé have made the first, sometimes unique, censuses for a host of wildlife species in Lopé and wider Gabon. To do this well, they have often pioneered new census methods, which will also allow us to reliably count and monitor these populations in the future. A national assessment of wildlife distributions using state-of-the-art methods in 2000-2001 contributed significantly to the designation of Gabon’s National Parks in 2002.
The ecological needs of a species, and thus the threats posed to it by logging, hunting and disease have been systematically assessed for most of the primates and larger mammals present at Lopé, enabling conservation staff to advise policymakers on conservation plans. As well as intensive work to support the Lopé National Park management plan, Lopé-based researchers also oversee large-mammal monitoring projects in 10 other protected areas across Central Africa and use the Lopé data to guide policy in areas where no local information is yet available.
3. Capacity Building Active conservation on the ground requires human resources, which can be limited in a developing country with a small population. The long legacy of research expertise at Lopé means that hundreds of University biology students, wildlife college students and in-service conservation professionals have benefited from specialist training here. For many years, courses in wildlife biology and conservation were taught at SEGC, and the WCS training centre (CEDAMM) was founded in 2004 by WCS to continue providing this support. ZSL has developed a strong capacity-building component in recent years.
Researchers from WCS, CIRMF and ZSL have provided specialist teaching sessions and materials for the developing national curriculum in environmental education, to private groups and schools, and tertiary level courses in specialist subjects, like botanical inventory, long-term environmental monitoring, protected area management, ape ecology, wildlife health or adaptive management and database use. All these activities have contributed to a growing national and international capacity and constituency for conservation in the region.
4. Human-Wildlife Interactions Conservation is often about finding ways for human and wildlife populations to co-exist. Researchers at Lopé have participated directly in several local and national activities that involve human-wildlife interactions and work with partners towards sustainable use of wildlife, reduction of human-wildlife conflicts and mitigation of the environmental impacts of human activities.
In 1998, a ‘Nature-Culture’ programme was initiated by SEGC (University of Stirling/CIRMF/WCS), aimed at highlighting the positive interactions between humans and their environment, and giving value to the traditional place of the environment in Gabonese culture. The programme began in Lopé with the ‘Ecomusée’; a multi-use interactive educational site at the headquarters of Lopé National Park, where tourists can learn about the Park and the culture of people living around it, local schoolchildren participate in an Environmental Education curriculum and where cultural events can be held. The Ecomusee is no longer run by SEGC, but it continues to receive technical support for its educational programmes.
WCS, ZSL and CIRMF have all contributed to building capacity for reducing human-wildlife disease transmission risks in the park. A number of park staff are trained in routine wildlife post-mortem sampling and are ready to respond to wildlife epidemics of diseases transmissible to humans, such as Ebola Virus, yellow fever or tuberculosis. Research has been carried out on parasite and disease transmission risks, both to humans and wildlife, and t studies of the impacts of human presence in the rainforest has shaped ecotourism and field research guidelines for good practice to reduce cross-infection.
Hunting In addition to health, hunting is a major threat to wildlife everywhere today. Currently overhunting is rapidly reducing wildlife across the tropics, especially in rainforests, resulting in ‘silent forests’. Past researchers at SEGC have led a national project to develop a National Strategy for Bushmeat Management, aimed at creating a framework for a sustainable bushmeat harvest that will not impact vulnerable wildlife populations, whilst enabling needy rural communities to provide some of their protein needs from wild meat.
Human modification of habitat is seen most dramatically at Lopé in the annual savannah burning programme. The Lopé savannahs provide an ‘island’ of rare habitat in the midst of the forest, providing a home to many endemic savannah species not found in the forest, and favouring populations of buffalo, bushbuck and many birds. The impacts of savannah burning are quantified by vegetation plots, savannah wildlife censuses and measures of Lopé erosion, so that the burning programme can best respond to multiple management goals.
5. Sustainable development & Environmental Policy Good environmental policy is now globally recognised as an essential part of good governance and sustainable development as a universal goal. The more profound our understanding of ecosystem function, the more successful our environmental policies will be. Rigorous scientific field research provides that crucial depth of understanding, so the data held at Lopé are vital in setting good environmental policy, both in Gabon and internationally.
Sustainable development for rural Gabonese people is the main objective for an expanding ecotourism industry, based around the National Parks. Our partners began working with local tourism operators as long ago as 1994 to train park guides, discover and map tourist trails in Lopé, create fieldguides and information sheets for tourists and carry out baseline surveys against which environmental impacts of tourism could be measured in the future. All park partners are encouraged to provide ongoing technical expertise to the National Parks Agency (ANPN) on a wide range of subjects, through their participation in the Lopé National Park Management Plan.
Over time, the databases and expertise amassed at Lopé have become important above and beyond policies for just Lopé National Park. Our partners have provided technical expertise for environmental policy development to, among others, the National Strategy for Bushmeat Management, the Regional Great Ape Survival Action Plan, the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation portfolio, the Ministries of Environment, Water and Forests and Health and the National Parks Agency. Senior researchers from Lopé sit on 4 scientific journal editorial boards and provide peer-review of scientific literature for around 30 different international publications.