Protecting the “Vanishing Treasures” Photo by Md. Towhidul Islam against climate change

Mountain gorillas are in a unique situation: thanks to intensive conservation efforts by Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo, they are the only great ape subspecies, whose numbers are growing. However, their future remains highly uncertain. While the mountain gorilla habitats in the Virunga Massif and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park are protected, limited carrying capacity and high human population in the surrounding areas increase pressure on land, water and other natural resources.

Climate change brings new challenges to the picture. Communities living near the parks are affected by changing weather patterns and water is becoming scarce during dry season. Local people are driven to fetch clean water from inside the parks, causing disturbance to gorillas and exposing them to diseases. Likewise, gorillas occasionally venture outside the park boundaries and cause damage to food crops. This competition over resources, aggravated by global warming, increases conflicts between humans and gorillas.

Through the Vanishing Treasures project, GRASP together with regional partners is exploring sustainable, ecosystem-based solutions to address these co-existence challenges in Rwanda and Uganda. To kickstart the project, key stakeholders including environment ministries, local governments, NGOs and academia convened for the first regional consultation meeting in Musanze, Rwanda on 11-12 September 2019. The purpose of the meeting was to jointly discuss remaining knowledge gaps on the interlinkages between climate change and other conservation threats, focus areas in the countries and innovative priority activities for the project. Working closely with protected area managers and affected communities, the overall objective is to improve land-use planning and buffer zone management to better respond to climate impacts.

At the global level, the Vanishing Treasures project covers two other target species: the snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and the Bengal tiger in Bhutan. Knowledge sharing between the regions is a fundamental element of the project, and, to foster this, the global partners gathered in Kyrgyzstan on 3-6 October 2019 to learn about snow leopard conservation. As all target species are highly adaptable to environmental change, the main climate-induced stressors are thought to be indirect, caused by local communities’ efforts to adapt to climate change themselves. Similarly to the mountain gorillas, snow leopards are affected by resource competition with humans as livestock herding expands, creating a negative impact on prey animals.

GRASP, in collaboration with the Secretariat of the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC), will organize the next global partners’ meeting in 2020. The region has a strong community-based conservation model, which will be showcased to the global partners. The aspiration is to fast-track local and national application of climate-smart conservation methods around the world.