July 3, 2008

Study: Wildlife Refuges Are Economic Boon to Nearby Residents, but at Cost

By Tim De Chant, Chicago Tribune

Jul. 3--The execution-style killing last year of a gorilla family in the Democratic Republic of Congo may portend future conflicts as humans encroach on resource-rich national parks in developing countries, according to authors of a new study.

The report to be published Friday in the journal Science surveyed strips of land surrounding protected areas and found that people are moving closer to such parks to take advantage of the economic development that often stems from conservation initiatives.

Yet those settlers also threaten the protected areas by unlawfully cutting down trees, growing crops, and hunting endangered animals within park boundaries.

The influx of capital from conservation groups and from tourism spawns roads, schools, and hospitals close to the protected areas, increasing farming profits and pumping up standards of living but challenging the integrity of the parks. Reserves also provide another resource in short supply for many of the worlds poor--land.

In areas like Sub-Saharan Africa, "Parks are some of the last uncultivated wilderness areas where you're not on someone else's land," said Justin Brashares, assistant professor of environmental science, policy, and management at the University of California-Berkeley, and one of the study's two lead authors.

Organized crime rings sometimes follow the money and population growth. In the case of the Congo gorilla killings, local authorities arrested the park director who allegedly was linked to an illegal operation that cut down trees in the park and reduced them to charcoal, a prime cooking fuel in the region. Killing the gorillas, which are vital to tourism in the park, was meant as a signal for rangers to stop cracking down on the charcoal trade, investigators believe.

The study in Science collected United Nations population data from 45 African and Latin American countries, focusing on people living within 6.2 miles of rural protected areas. The survey found that populations grew faster than average near 245 out of 306 parks studied, highlighting the worldwide extent of the trend.

A major challenge for conservation groups is to balance encouragement of economic development near parks with protection of the parks themselves, experts said. Barring local residents from entering the parks would be impractical and counterproductive, since the parks need local support to thrive, said George Wittemyer, a researcher in environmental science, policy, and management at Berkeley, and the study's other lead author.

Many conservation groups encourage development around parks as both a necessity and a neighborly gesture. If a park plan fails to compensate locals for the loss of land and resources, "you're going to have a backlash," Wittemyer said.


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