Monday, February 19, 2007

Wildlife Parks of Gabon

Gabon, a country in central Africa about the size of Colorado, took an amazing step in 2002, setting aside 10% of the country's land for National Parks, to protect and preserve habitat for wildlife. I recently stumbled across this interesting and detailed account of the meeting in which the President of Gabon, who has been in power since 1967, made the unilateral and surprise decision to accept the recommendation of wildlife experts and establish 13 National Parks throughout Gabon. NPR's account of the park system creation can be found here.

These 13 parks are described on Gabon's National Parks website. National Geographic sent a team to travel the new parks, and they reported that the wildlife was amazing, but harder to spot than on more traditional savanna safaris like those in Kenya and Tanzania. You can see some of their photos and read their comments here. Gabon has thick, lush forests and is reportedly some of the most pristine wildlife habitat left in the world.

Although Gabon is well positioned to become one of the world's top eco-tourism destinations, at the present time it is still relatively undeveloped and not packed with tourists. In many ways it remains off the radar, undoubtedly to be discovered by the masses soon. It is difficult to think of another place you could go in Africa where there is political stability, and a chance to see forest elephants, mandrills (pictured above), and lowland gorillas.

Gabon is mostly lush tropical forests, with few cities and even few wildlife trails. There are a number of companies offering custom safaris with local guides in Gabon, and undoubtedly the tourist industry will grow. Gabon's President made a conscious choice to move from logging and oil drilling to wildlife protection and eco-tourism. As National Geographic reported in the article linked above:

The Gabonese parks reflect a visionary decision grounded in economic pragmatism. After decades of heavy reliance on petroleum and timber industries, Mr. Bongo said, "we are left with little oil in the ground, a fragmented forest, dwindling income, and a burden of debt." The next growth sector of his nation's economy, he vowed, would be "one based on enjoying, not extracting, natural resources.

In part, Gabon's President Bongo made his decision based on information gathered during a 2,000 mile walk across Gabon made by biologist and conservationist J. Michael Fay. (As hard-core as it gets). Fay was gored by an elephant a few months later, in early 2003, but he survived (see account here). It will be very interesting to see what happens in Gabon in the years to come - and hopefully to get there someday before the rush of tourists.

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