Independent Appeal: Invisible fence that can help to save great apes of Africa

Michael McCarthy,Environment Editor
Wednesday 12 December 2007 01:00

There is a great prize to be won in the struggle to conserve wildlife in Africa, amid the continent's overwhelming poverty. We could call it the invisible fence.

It does what a conventional fence is meant to do: it keeps people away from places where their activities or even their presence might cause environmental harm. But it does not stretch between posts hammered into the ground. For it exists only in the mind.

Constructing invisible fences is one of the main aims of the Gorilla Organization one of the three charities being supported by this year's Independent Christmas Appeal which is striving to save the largest of the great apes from increasing threatsto its survival. It is work that needs to be done because in situations of great human need, conventional fences around areas where such need may be satisfied, such as a forest, do not work. People will always get over them, if their need is big enough. Even then, some would find a way.

Take the montane rainforest that stretches along the Virunga massif, the range of six extinct volcanoes that straddles the borders of Rwanda, Congo and Uganda. It is home to half the total population of the mountain gorilla, the second scarcest of the four gorilla subspecies and one of the rarest animals on earth, with no more than about 700 individuals remaining. Yet it is also home to natural resources that are greatly valued among the two million people, mainly poor farmers, who live around the forest's boundary.

With its rich vegetation, the forest is a wonderful place to site beehives. For many years, people have been climbing over the boundary fence, even though the forest has long been declared a national park. And the human competition has been putting increasing pressure on the gorillas' fragile habitat, and on the animals themselves.

So the Gorilla Organization (GO) is striving to substitute the conventional but unworkable forest barrier with a series of changed attitudes, based on needs satisfied elsewhere. Thus the GO is striving to bring beekeepers out of the forest, by offering help to make honey production outside the park as economical as it was inside.

The Ugandan part of the Virungas is known as the Mgahinga national park, and Kisoro, the nearest town, has a thriving beekeepers' co-operative, representing more than 1,800 farmers. They produce about seven tonnes of honey a year. The beeswax is used to make candles and sold to the cosmetic industry.

Now they have signed a partnership agreement with the Gorilla Organization, which is providing training in modern bee husbandry techniques, and in future will provide more equipment and modern hives to replace traditional hives which are made out of hollowed-out logs.

Thomas Birekeraho, from the village of Rukongo, frequently gets stung because he does not have proper overalls, but the GO may be able to provide them for him next year. John Basabose, from the same village, does have most of the clothing. In his hat and veil with his smoke can (for getting the bees out of the hive so the honey can be harvested) he looks like a priest from a bizarre cult, and makes a fine picture.

Jillian Miller, London-based director of the Gorilla Organization, decided to take the photo and entered the compound where Mr Basabose's hives are located with warnings about stings ringing in her ears from the co-operative chairman, David Rwisebura. No sooner was she inside than she was stung on the left shoulder. She was hopping. So another beekeeper, Thomas Munyakibiina, stepped forward, and with a deft scratching movement of his finger on the outside of her blouse, removed the sting. "If you tried to pull it out, it would go further in," he explained. She was still hopping. So Mr Rwisebura plucked a bright green aromatic plant growing near by and told her to rub it in. She did so, and the relief was immediate.

Mr Rwisebura told me: "When the world was created, bees were one of the best animals for man. At the moment you kill the bees, you kill the earth. No food would be produced." "And what about the forest?" I asked. "Ah," he said, "the forest is for the gorillas."

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