By David Banks
As our Cessna 182 gains altitude, we clear the low cloud layer that has shrouded Arusha for days. The anchoring volcanoes that control our weather and vegetation poke through the clouds.
I’m embarking on a two-week trip to visit two of our developing projects in Tanzania and Zambia. Matt Brown, our conservation director, is joining me.
Hovering over Arusha sits Mt. Meru, a spectacular peak often overlooked because Kilimanjaro dominates our eastern horizon. To the north and west, we can see the bulk of the Ngorongoro crater, the world’s largest volcanic caldera.
Further north is Ol Donyo Lengai, the mountain of the gods. Active and occasionally fuming, its perfect cone rises pyramid-like from the desert.
The peaks slowly slip away as we head south over Lake Manyara, the Yaeda Valley and Lake Eyasi. Along the way to Tabora, small farms and grasslands with well-traveled livestock trails pepper the landscape. From black cotton soils, larger plots of commercial maize or wheat appear.
The population density and quilted fragmentation of the land surprise me — not only because of the extent, but due to the stark contrast to Maasai pastoral lands to our north. West of Tabora, farms quickly fade away, replaced by vast swamps and unbroken woodlands. A much more natural quilt.
Flying down the Malagarassi River, we see how huge expanses of wetlands gather water like a sponge. A slow, steady squeeze releases it into the rapidly channelized river. We follow the river through canyons, past waterfalls and side valleys.
Turning south just short of Lake Tanganyika, we fly over unbroken Miombo woodlands important to animals ranging from chimps to elephants. As we approach Mahale, Lake Tanganyika looks more like an ocean. The mountains of Mahale dominate the horizon.
For nearly two hours, we have flown over unbroken terrain, with barely a glimpse of human habitation. Having lived in Alaska and traveled around the world, I appreciate how rare this is and I’m shocked to find so much wildness here.
Mahale is one of those magical and powerful places that leave you bored with other destinations. Rising from the lake to nearly 2,500 meters above sea level, Mt. Nkunkwe is shrouded in montane forests and grasslands.
The lake itself — the world’s longest — holds 17% of the fresh water on Earth. It’s crystal clear and filled with 300+ species of colorful cichlid fish, salmon, corals, crabs, jellyfish and swimming cobras. Between the lake and the mountains are white sand beaches and river mouths teeming with crocodiles and hippos.
Surrounding these rivers and spreading up to the montane grasslands are forests filled with chimpanzees. The chimps of Mahale and surrounding ranges are the only viable populations of the Eastern subspecies. Some 75% of these 1,000 individuals inhabit forest outside park boundaries, where they remain subject to pressures from logging and poaching.
When I go for a sunset swim, the forest is alive with chimp and bird sounds. You can’t help but grasp how few places like this still exist. Wild and powerful, yet vulnerable. The calls from the forest seem to beg for protection.
These words echo a common refrain from people associated with the park. Nearly everyone we encounter wants to discuss the opportunity that still exists: “We can make the park bigger.” “We can add forest reserves.” “We can secure buffers to the park.” All important ideas, but even a big park with big buffers is affected by people and poverty.
If you stay in the park or on the lake, you feel it could stay this way forever, but threats are increasing and closing in. As in many places in Africa, problems originate from a rapidly growing human population and deep poverty. Despite low population densities in the forest and Miombo around the park, the numerous lakeshore villages are all expanding and suffering from extreme poverty exacerbated by remoteness.
More than 25,000 people now live in one village we visit, yet there are no roads, no cell-phone reception, no teachers in the secondary school, no doctors. We hear stories of difficult child births forcing women to endure a 20-hour boat trip to Kigoma, a ride that often results in the death of the child, mother, or both.
We visit a project sponsored by one of our partners, Frankfurt Zoological Society. They make small loans to different members of a group they’ve helped organize so that funds can be pooled. This is proving to be a successful venture, opening entirely new avenues for individuals to grow small businesses.
After discussing the micro-lending program, I ask the group about the most important needs in their village. I’m sure they’ve heard the same question from other people who listen and then go away. Their collective response is no surprise: “We need doctors, communications, teachers, roads and clean water.”
It’s a familiar list, with no simple solutions. Matt leans over and whispers, “I don’t think I can work at this level anymore.”
I reluctantly agree, but unfortunately, it’s this level that’s important. Forgotten by the world, these communities live much as they have since Arab slave traders used their villages as bases from which to plunder Congo’s ivory and people. The world may not know or care much about this place, yet future threats to Mahale’s wonders will emanate from right here.
Without access to education and modern contraception, these villages will keep expanding up nearby rivers — into the very core of wild lands surrounding the park.
The Tongwe people who live along Lake Tanganyika traditionally espoused strong values connecting them to the natural world. They believed in sacred highland areas where only chiefs and spiritual leaders could go. They protected large trees of spiritual importance from harvest. They placed limits on fishing locations and seasons.
These practices weren’t just spiritual; they were considered essential for survival. But as population grew and new people moved in, traditions faded. One elder tells us, “When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you are forced to move upriver simply to find something to eat.”
I’m afraid rapid expansion will degrade this system, as it has in much of the world. To address this threat, we must work at the ground level. It will never be easy, as Matt indicates, but it’s essential.
David Banks is director of The Nature Conservancy's Africa program. He reports from the field on special places, people and conservation issues in our series David's Dispatches.