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Gabon Preserves 10 Percent of Land for Parks

NEW YORK, New York, September 5, 2002 (ENS) - A full 10 percent of the land mass of the African country of Gabon will be set aside for a system of national parks, the nation's government announced Wednesday. Gabon, which had no national park system until this week, contains some of the most pristine tropical rainforests on earth, home to gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants and a host of other wildlife.

waterfall

One of the spectacular waterfalls in the Langoue Bai, part of the new Ivindo National Park. (Photo © Lee White, courtesy WCS)
The Gabonese government has been working closely with New York based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) on conservation issues for the past 10 years. The conservation group, based at the Bronx Zoo, calls Gabon's announcement a major victory for Africa's wildlife.

"This is one of the most courageous conservation acts in the last 20 years," said Dr. Steven Sanderson, president and CEO of the WCS. "President Bongo has set a new standard for wildlife protection in Central Africa - one that we hope other nations will follow."

According to Gabon's President El Hadj Omar Bongo, some 13 national parks comprising more than 10,000 square miles will be established, protecting vital wildlife habitat. Only Costa Rica has set aside a higher percentage of its land for conservation, though the total size of its parks is much smaller.

"This is a decision of global significance that implies certain sacrifices in the short and medium term in order to achieve our goal of preserving these natural wonders for future generations," said President Bongo.

mangroves

Mangroves swamps edge the Mondah and Corisco bays in the new Akanda National Park. (Photo © Chris Wilks, courtesy WCS)
The parks range from regions along Gabon's coastline, where hippopotamuses frolic on untouched beaches, to unique forest clearings - home to so called naïve populations of gorillas that show no fear of humans. The new Ivindo National Park will protect the Kongou and Mingouli falls, the biggest and most spectacular waterfalls of forested Africa, along with a number of waterhole clearings or bais that attract concentrations of wildlife.

Mayumba National Park, a thin strip of sand in the extreme south of the country, hosts the largest concentrations of nesting leatherback turtles on earth. At the extreme northeast corner of Gabon, Minkébé National Park is a huge expanse of almost uninhabited forest where elephant paths wind between isolated rock domes and centuries old trees.

The Bateke Plateaux National Park includes the unexplored canyons carved by the upper Mpassa River, forested stretches supporting hundreds of migratory birds, and may hold the few lions remaining in Gabon. Waka National Forest includes the rugged mountains of the Chaillu Massif and traces of an ancient Gabonese culture.

elephant

A forest elephant in Wonga-Wongué Presidential Reserve. (Photo © Lee White, courtesy WCS)
Under Gabonese law, the surface area of a National Park cannot be less than 1,000 hectares. Smaller areas may be protected as nature reserves, sanctuaries or other categories to ensure long term protection for a variety of ecosystems. The forests and coastal savannahs of Wonga-Wongué, for example, were designated as a Presidential Reserve in 1972.

The Ogooué wetlands, the second largest freshwater delta of the African continent, have been proposed as an international Biosphere Reserve. Their diverse mix of mangrove flats, marsh forest, papyrus, reedbeds and floating grasses are home to hippopotamus, manatee, crocodiles, waterbirds, turtles and a variety of fish.

Much of the land earmarked for protection was selected based on years of field research by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has studied Gabon's wildlife since 1985.

In 2000, WCS conservationist Lee White played a key role in resolving a conflict between loggers and conservationists in the Lopé Reserve, a pristine forest savanna mosaic, which will be part of the new park system. White helped direct logging activities away from pristine areas of high biological importance, in exchange for limited logging in less ecologically productive areas.

mandrill

A mandrill in the new Lopé National Park in central Gabon, which has been proposed as a World Heritage Site. (Photo © Lee White, courtesy WCS)
At the same time, WCS and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) began a survey of Gabon's remote areas in order to help the government develop a national park system. That survey was requested by Gabon's Minister of Forests and Water at the time, Dr. Richard Ouvinet.

National Geographic drew additional publicity to Gabon's extraordinary biological wealth, while filming and photographing WCS conservationist Mike Fay's "Megatransect" - a joint expedition between WCS and National Geographic across the Congo Basin forest. As a result of these and other considerations, President Bongo agreed that a park system should become a reality.

Many of the new parks will be developed for ecotourism, as an economic alternative to exploiting Gabon's forests for timber. This endeavor will be aided by funds from the United States government and three conservation groups - WCS, WWF and Conservation International - who on Wednesday announced a minimum $72.5 million commitment to protect forests in the Congo Basin, which includes Gabon.

hippo

A hippo walks the beach at the new Mayumba National Park. (Photo © Lee White, courtesy WCS)
"By creating these national parks, we will develop a viable alternative to simple exploitation of natural resources that will promote the preservation of our environment. Already there is a broad consensus that Gabon has the potential to become a natural Mecca, attracting pilgrims from the four points of the compass in search of the last remaining natural wonders on earth," President Bongo said.

More information on the new national park system is available at: http://www.gabonnationalparks.com



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