Science and Conservation in African Forests illustrates the key role that field stations play in conservation using a unique case study from Kibale National Park. We caught up with author Richard Wrangham at the International Primatological Society Congress this August in Edinburgh and asked him a few questions about Kibale and the research that’s being undertaken there.
What is the most pressing requirement for the conservation of Apes? What is the role of field stations in that?
Every population needs advocates on its behalf, because without them the pressures of habitat loss and hunting take a continuing toll until there is nothing left. The advocates are sometimes government departments such as national parks and forestry, and sometimes conservation NGOs, but field stations provide critical extra voices that maintain a call for protection when other advocates are too busy or distracted. Field stations lead to scientists, conservations and government representatives working together, trusting each other and cooperating for conservation. They generate information, education, and publicity.
You make a compelling case for the establishment of a greater number of field stations – what is needed to bring this about?
Field stations tend to evolve rather than be created de novo (since the investment required to make something out of nothing is rather a big gamble), and they depend very much on the initiative of their founders and directors. But at some point they also depend on substantial support from agencies with a vision of just how much field stations can achieve. From the researchers’ perspective, we need to do a better job in documenting the conservation impact that field stations have had, and getting that information into the awareness of donors.
I believe that enlightened donors at the major international level will come to recognize the importance of field stations as foci of conservation. It would be very exciting to see some large initiatives by big donors, such as aiming to provide support to convert a number of small research programs into long-term field programs every year. The ultimate vision should be that every major forest needs a monitoring presence to help it survive, and national and international field stations are a key part of that future.
The long-term viability of research stations like Kibale seems to depend on the passion and dedication of a few committed individuals over many years. Is there a need for the multitude of roles a field research station can play to become more widely accepted in order for their long-term viability to be assured?
Field stations seem to have a rather predictable growth and development. They begin as sites of pure research, but as they grow they take on increasing numbers of people interested in conservation and community development. Committed individuals are needed to help reach the point where it becomes an easy place to work, but then it takes on a life of its own.
Have funders/philanthropists been sold on the direct conservation benefits field stations can bring? What more could be done to promote this view?
I believe the donors do not yet appreciate the multiple impacts that come from field stations. My hope is that our book will launch a conversation among primatologists that will lead to more realization of this point through publicity, research on the impacts themselves, and imagining how much more could be achieved in the future.
Are field stations and their long-term research a pre-requisite for effective conservation in African forests (and elsewhere)?
They are not a pre-requisite but they are a vital component. The current situation is very severe because we face a rapidly growing and already intense series of threats. Forests are falling, and hunting is often excessive. Every effort helps, and the effort provided by field stations is particularly valuable because of the intimate knowledge that it provides, the long-term relationships it generates, and the passionate constituencies of support.
What’s the best way for researchers interested in working at or with a field station to find out more about the locations and their facilitates? There doesn’t seem to be a anywhere with an up to date list of research stations?
This is a great point! I do not know of any international data banks about field stations. It could be a helpful development.
How do field stations like Kibale and eco-tourism interact? How can they work together?
In Kibale eco-tourism is confined to one area, and research to another. The relationship works well. Obviously the system has to be adapted to different locales. The important thing is that people trust each other to collaborate – i.e. the managers of eco-tourism, and the researchers – which comes about through longterm commitment.
How do local communities benefit from the research at field stations?
Local communities benefit in ways that differ in each site, but typical benefts include employment, eco-tourism, direct investment in community institutions such as schools, and help with planning resource use such as firewood.
Could you describe for us a typical day in the field at Kibale?
On a fieldwork day, I leave camp at 5 with two research assistants and a graduate student, walk for 30-60 minutes into the forest, sit by a nesting site where we left chimpanzees last night. The next half-hour while dawn breaks is perfect – silent in the forest while chimpanzees slowly stir above us, maybe calling evocatively. They climb down and start the day by walking to a fruit-tree. We follow, and join their rhythm all day, feed, rest (and groom) and travel. At mid-day we each step away and hide from the chimpanzees while we eat our own lunch. By evening we have walked for several kilometers and are grateful when they finally climb to make nests again. We reach camp between 7 and 8, go to our lab to process specimens we have collected, and finally sit down to eat and chat in camp about which chimpanzees we saw that day, what interesting things they did, and why!