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Ivory Coast tries ecotourism to save chimpanzees

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 3, 2014 at 10:45 am •  Published: May 3, 2014

The small, mud-brick village of Gouleako is one of the many near the park's edge that houses families from throughout the country and neighboring Burkina Faso. Residents make their living largely from cocoa farming. As land pressure increases, they have taken to burning away sections of forest to make room for more fields.

Victor Tere, the village chief, said this has had a clear effect on the environment.

"Before, when I was young, chimpanzees came very close to the village. They would sometimes even come in. Now we don't see them," he said.

Chimpanzees are also hunted illegally by Ivorians who consider their meat a delicacy, according to a study by two American researchers published in the March issue of Tropical Conservation Science.

Despite these trends, conservationists see new hope in two government-run ecotourism projects that have begun to attract visitors, however slowly. A typical tour lasts three days and involves long forest hikes, climbing the 554-foot Mount Nienokoue and sleeping in tents. The tourist activity creates employment and the tourists spend money among local communities.

"It is important that people see they can profit from conservation," said Boesch, who said he has been inspired by wildlife-viewing programs in Rwanda and Congo that have turned gorillas into tourist attractions which have benefited the local people.

Since January, about 100 tourists have visited Tai National Park, according to the national forest agency — not bad considering most embassies still discourage visits to Tai because of the history of instability in western Ivory Coast.

As it waits for tourism numbers to rise, the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation has organized "nature clubs" where volunteers teach schoolchildren about the forest and what it contains. It has also launched a snail farm to provide an alternative to bush meat, and organized volunteer observation squads so local residents can play a direct role in monitoring deforestation.

Boesch said he is realistic about the potential effect of the projects, however, and realizes there can be no silver bullet when it comes to saving Ivory Coast's chimpanzees.

"We are trying by all means to make a future for the forest and its animals, and the battle is not won," he said. "It will never end. What has been gained can be lost in a very short time."