Canopies for communities and chimps

Researchers summarize 60 years of collaborative work in and around Gombe National Park, efforts to support local communities and protect ailing chimpanzee populations.
February 02, 2021

The hillsides overlooking a boat journey from Kigoma, Tanzania up the coast to Gombe National Park look quite different compared to two decades ago. The steep slopes, prone to erosion, used to oscillate between bean and cassava fields during the wet season and barren dusty red soil during the dry season. 

Now, woodlands cover the steep slopes instead. In the wet season, green slopes are lush with vegetation. The tree roots reduce soil erosion, stabilize the watershed and ultimately help improve water quality. Locals utilize the areas for beekeeping, harvesting mushrooms and collecting native fruits. 

The boat ride is a familiar journey for Michael Wilson, associate professor in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior (EEB), who lived in Kigoma for years and visits the area to conduct research annually. For two decades, he’s witnessed reforestation efforts and recently wrote about the collaborative research and conservation efforts in Biological Conservation

Michael Wilson wears a gray shirt and stands by Jane Goodall who wear a green shirt

“This paper showcases all of the hard work inside and outside Gombe National Park over the last 60 years. None of this was done by just one person. It’s a deeply collaborative effort, including local Tanzanians and international researchers,” says Wilson, first author on the paper.

Gombe National Park is where Jane Goodall, Ph.D., world-famous primatologist, began her work in the 1960s. Goodall, a co-author on the recent paper and Wilson’s long-time collaborator, was central to early research detailing the social nature of chimpanzees. Goodall established the first long-term study of chimpanzees and provided the first detailed accounts of their behavior in the wild. She also kept the study going into its sixth decade, providing a wealth of information, contributing discoveries not possible from shorter studies.

Beyond park borders

In the 1980s, it was clear that research and conservation work needed to extend beyond the park boundaries. In 1994, Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) staff proposed and established the Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education (TACARE) program. Spearheaded by staff scientists Janette Wallis, Ph.D., and Anthony Collins, Ph.D., TACARE focused on socio-economic development, offering support and education to villagers living near Gombe. Implementing a community-centered conservation approach, TACARE centered efforts on supporting local communities.

“When I arrived in Gombe in 2001 and realized how small it was, I was really worried about the future of Gombe chimpanzees. My colleagues and I saw the value in the TACARE project and what it was doing for the community, but we didn’t see the direct benefits to chimpanzees,” says Wilson.

This sentiment was shared with several members of the TACARE project team as well. Wilson sparked up a partnership with Lilian Pintea, who at the time was working on his PhD with then EEB Professor Anne Pusey. The Pusey Lab, where Wilson completed his postdoctoral research, worked closely with JGI researchers on the ground in Gombe for decades. Pusey is a key leader in the quest to conserve Gombe chimps in perpetuity. 

Pintea and Wilson drafted a map using the best available topography, vegetation and land use data available at the time, identifying rugged and sparsely inhabited areas that were poor candidates for future agricultural use. Pintea’s expertise in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing was critical to analyze data and identify partly wooded areas that could connect nearby chimpanzees to the small population at Gombe. 

This “dream map” was not, however, converted directly into conservation actions. JGI remained committed to a community-driven conservation proces. Rather than imposing conservation strategies on local communities, JGI’s TACARE staff worked to support Tanzanian leaders and community members to develop a conservation action plan for the entire Greater Gombe Ecosystem. 

One strategy identified as part of the conservation action plan was village land use planning. Similar to a zoning plan, villagers used a participatory approach to map out village resources and designate some areas — especially around water sources and rugged slopes — as Village Land Forest Reserves. Decisions about uses of the Village Forest Reserves continue to be made by local communities, with support from TACARE. 

“TACARE created a research-implementation space in which local communities, government officials and JGI staff collaborated with scientists. The team continues to use data and research results to help local decision makers adapt and better manage their landscapes for communities and chimpanzees,” says Pintea, now the vice president of conservation science at the JGI USA. 

Assessing the impact 

Research assessing how these land-use changes impact chimpanzee populations is still underway. Elihuruma Wilson Kimaro, a park warden for Gombe National Park and a Ph.D. student in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, is leading this effort. Co-advised by Jennifer Powers and Michael Wilson, Elihuruma recently returned to Tanzania to document the reforestation progress, continuing the collaboration between JGI and CBS researchers.

“Through this work, I will be able to propose measures that will promote the sustainable management of these reserves,” says Elihuruma.

Although the two key threats faced by chimpanzees — infectious diseases and deforestation — remain the same, the way research is conducted looks quite different than decades ago. Starting a few years ago, researchers and tourists alike began wearing masks to avoid spreading diseases to the chimpanzee populations or contracting diseases themselves. The COVID-19 pandemic heightens concerns among researchers, as chimpanzees are prone to contracting other coronaviruses. 

With safety measures in place, researchers continue to assess the impacts of land-use changes on communities and chimps. So far, researchers are optimistic. “The Village Land Forest Reserves are a good example of a mutually-beneficial solution,” says Michael Wilson. “It seems to be a win-win solution for chimpanzees and humans.” 

— Claire Wilson