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After 40 Years of Effort, Tanzania Creates New Protected Area for Endangered Monkeys

It's taken a long time, conservationists say, partly because of complicated land ownership issues.
Red Colobus Monkey

Red Colobus Monkey

Tanzania has officially created a new protected area, the Magombera Nature Reserve, extending protection to numerous species of rare plants and animals, including the endangered Udzungwa red colobus monkey and Verdcourt's Polyalthia tree. The reserve, located in south-central Tanzania and spread over 10 square miles, lies sandwiched between two large protected areas: the Selous Game Reserve to the east and the Udzungwa Mountains National Park to the west.

The formal declaration of the reserve comes after some 40 years of research and conservation efforts. It's taken a long time, conservationists say, partly because of complicated land ownership issues.

The biological value of the Magombera forest area first came to attention in the 1970s with the discovery of a population of the Udzungwa red colobus, a rare primate species that's found only around the mountains it's named after. Subsequent expeditions revealed many more species of plants and animals that were either rare or unique to the area. Following these discoveries, the Tanzanian government agreed to annex the Magombera forest, then designated a forest reserve, into the adjacent, much-larger, and heavily protected Selous Game Reserve. Consequently, Magombera was de-gazetted in 1980 and its status as a forest reserve was revoked.

"But, tragically, for an unknown reason, the annexation to the Selous didn't happen, and the area was sold to a sugar company!" Andrew Marshall, a conservation scientist at the University of York, who's been working in Magombera since the early 2000s, writes in an email. "It wasn't until 2002 that researchers and conservationists were informed of the error, and the sugar company agreed not to develop the land."

This sparked renewed efforts to secure protection of the forest.

Marshall and his colleagues started a conservation program called the Udzungwa Forest Project in partnership with Flamingo Land, a United Kingdom-based theme park and conservation zoo, and the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group. The main threats to the Magombera forest area were tree-felling for charcoal production and firewood; bushfires; and bushmeat hunting. So, the UFP team signed agreements with the local communities to plant trees and find alternative fuel sources, and conducted education programs to "spread the word regarding the importance of forest for climate, tourism revenue, and wildlife."

"Local communities have been central to everything that we do," Marshall writes.

But some big challenges remained: Marshall's team had to come up with ways to curb illegal deforestation, and, more importantly, they had to find funds to secure the land from the sugar company so that a reserve could formally be created. "The eventual solution was to negotiate a fee with the sugar company, and seek donors willing to fund this and subsequent conservation management," Marshall writes.

The discovery of some new species and populations of some very threatened species from the Magombera region helped earn some of the much-needed donor support. Marshall's discovery of the Magombera chameleon in 2009, for instance, a new-to-science species of chameleon that a startled snake had spit out in front of Marshall, increased support for protection of the forest. Boosting this interest was the discovery of populations of the endangered Udzungwa red colobus and trees like the Verdcourt's Polyalthia, the large-leaved Memecylon and the Luke's Cynometra. "The region is also home to numerous other internationally threatened species of plants and animals, including the Udzungwa dwarf galago, African elephants, and hippopotamus," Paul Salaman, chief executive officer of the United States-based Rainforest Trust, said in a statement.

The Rainforest Trust was among the organizations that provided funding, along with the U.K.-based World Land Trust, Flamingo Land, and the Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation of Denmark. The UFP team then followed the original forest reserve boundary to demarcate the reserve's limits. "But then my field team walked the boundary with government officials and village leaders, and then the government adjusted it so that it allowed for any farms that had accidentally crept into the former reserve (not a large number)," Marshall says.

The declaration of the reserve is just the first formal step, though. One of the next tasks now will be to develop a management plan for the reserve along with people from the local villages and other stakeholders. The plan will outline the rules for the new reserve, Marshall says. "I expect there may be some concession in this for access to traditional medicine, and certainly also educational visits, but this is for the community and managers to decide jointly."

A key feature of the management plan will be to boost tourism to the reserve, which can eventually benefit the local communities. The details are yet to be worked out, but the teams envision part of the entrance fees going into a village fund, as well as increased opportunities for employment of the local community members as rangers or reserve assistants.

"The next step is to ensure that ecotourism operations are effectively implemented without any negative impacts on the forest and generate enough revenue to ensure the sustainable management of Magombera Nature Reserve long-term," says Alex Antram, conservation outreach manager of the Rainforest Trust.

"The more people that visit the forest, the more revenue can be earned for local communities and forest management," Marshall says. "We are firmly of the opinion that conservation success is driven by economics and direct benefits to local people."

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.