Community conservation

Posted on April, 05 2011

Looking after the natural resources we all depend on is in everybody’s interest
Looking after the natural resources we all depend on is in everybody’s interest

When we see the benefit something brings, we take care of it.

That’s why surfers clean litter from beaches. Gardeners plant flowers to attract bees. A community campaigns to stop a new supermarket being built on the local green space where children play and wild orchids grow.

And it’s why, in Africa, mountain gorilla numbers are increasing.

Tourists come to Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to catch a glimpse of these magnificent creatures. The tourists mean money, jobs and a better standard of living for nearby villagers. Because the gorillas are such an important resource, local people are committed to protecting them.

It’s just one example of how we’ve helped local communities to benefit from conservation. By looking after their own natural resources, people all over the world are improving their own lives – and making our shared vision of a world where humans live in harmony with nature a reality.

What’s at stake?

Mountain gorillas are one of humanity’s closest relatives, sharing as much as 99% of our DNA. But over the years, much of their forest habitat has been destroyed. Poaching has also taken a heavy toll. Now only about 700 hundred remain in the wild. 

Mountain gorilla habitats are protected in national parks, but this alone cannot guarantee their survival. In a region wracked by war and poverty, the people living near mountain gorillas have difficulty meeting even their most basic needs like food and fresh water. 

Residents rely on the land for agriculture and animal grazing. As humans encroach on the forest, the gorillas’ habitat shrinks further.

Only with the support of local communities will we secure a future for gorillas. And it’s not just about gorillas: from saving rainforests to changing fishing practices, community-led conservation has a vital role to play.

The story so far

One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned over the last 50 years is that conservation works best when local communities actively participate. Rather than protecting nature from people, we look for practical solutions that allow humans and other species to thrive together.

Our work with mountain gorillas in the Virunga volcanoes on the borders of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda shows just how successful this approach can be.

In 1991, we helped set up the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), in partnership with the African Wildlife Foundation and Flora and Fauna International. IGCP helps authorities manage a cross-border network of protected areas, and has helped develop mountain gorilla tourism.

This provides jobs for local people – like as tour guides or park rangers. Some tourist revenues go back into the communities, helping to fund conservation work as well as new infrastructure and enterprises such as tree plantations. And it’s not just nearby villages that benefit – as a popular tourist attraction, mountain gorillas boost the whole economy.

All this gives local people a powerful incentive, and the means, to protect the gorillas and their habitat. And it’s working: despite severe civil unrest in and around the Virunga National Park, a census in 2010 recorded 480 gorillas in the area, an increase of 100 since 2003. Mountain gorillas are now the only great ape in the world whose population isn’t in severe decline.

We’ve seen similar success stories elsewhere:
  • Tanzania: we’ve helped coastal communities to look after their local fish stocks in a sustainable way. Local fishers are now responsible for confiscating fishing equipment that damages the environment and collecting fees for fishing licences – providing them with an extra income while conserving their livelihoods in the long-term.
  • Namibia: elephants, cheetahs and other wildlife have made an amazing comeback in the last couple of decades. With strong government backing, we’ve helped local communities to set up and run “conservancies”, which allow them to manage and benefit from their own natural resources. Read more about our successes in Namibia
  • Philippines: We’ve helped eco-tourism to flourish in Donsol, where visitors now flock to see schools of endangered whale sharks, the world’s largest fish, bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy. Communities benefit – and so do the fish and other marine species, as local people recognize the need to conserve their largest asset.
  • India: Arunachal Pradesh is one of the only regions in India where indigenous people control their own forest regions. We’ve been working with them to create Community Conserved Areas, special areas where development is carefully managed and conservation regulations are strictly enforced. It’s helping people preserve their way of life, and benefiting species like red pandas that live in the forest.
  • Brazil: We’re helping local people in the state of Acre to make a better living by protecting the Amazon rainforest than by clearing it for logging or farming. We worked with the state government to introduce a new law that recognizes the huge value of the environmental services – such as storing carbon – that the rainforest provides, and offers people incentives to conserve it. 
These include payments to local people who look after their land, money for community projects, and technical help with sustainable agriculture and forestry. We’re helping people develop sustainable livelihoods, such as rubber tapping and selling forest products like brazil nuts.

Did you know?

Mountain gorillas weren’t discovered until 1902, and there were fears they would not survive into the 21st century. They’re the largest type of gorilla – adult males weigh 220kg and have an arm span of over 2m.

Facts and stats

  • 26% - increase in the mountain gorilla population in the Virunga volcanoes since 2003, up from 380 to 480
  • US$678,000 – money local communities in Uganda earn each year from tourists who come to see mountain gorillas
  • US$1 million – annual value to the Ugandan economy of each of its gorillas
  • 120,000 sq km – area of wildlife habitat sustainably managed by communities in Namibia, where wildlife sightings have almost doubled since 2004

What next?

We involve local people in all our conservation work, and we’re looking to replicate the success of our community-led conservation projects in other areas.

We believe that what’s worked for mountain gorillas can do the same for lowland gorillas in central Africa. We’re bringing the Namibian model of community-run wildlife conservancies to neighbouring Botswana and Zambia. We think that Acre can provide a model for international efforts to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation.

But we’re also looking to a much bigger community: the global one.

Ultimately, we all benefit from nature’s services – from food, materials and medicines to clean water and fertile soils, as well as the joy and wonder nature brings. We want to show people all over the world that looking after our one and only planet is in everyone’s interest.

How you can help

  • Buying Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood and paper benefits local people as well as wildlife: always look out for the FSC label when you’re shopping.
  • Planning an exotic holiday? Be an ecotourist! Choose a trip that benefits wildlife and local communities.
  • Find out more about mountain gorillas
Fijian men celebrating the creation of a new Marine Protected Area, Vanua Levu, Fiji.
© Brent Stirton / Getty Images
Whale shark (Rhincodon typus) seen from underwater with snorkler in Indo-Pacific Ocean.
© Jürgen Freund / WWF
WWF Philippines Donsol Research Coordinator Elson Aca writing down details of a Whale shark satellite tag into his slate. This is a SPLASH Tag deployed in 2007, it records position only for mapping whale sharks' movements. Donsol, Sorsogon, Bicol, Philippines.
© Jürgen Freund / WWF