I got my first taste of working in an international nature conservation project in the summer of 1991. I had the opportunity to work as a guest student for three and a half months in the project "Conservation de la Nature intégrée, Est-Zaïre" (Integrated Nature Conservation, East Zaire), which was assisted by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit ( GTZ). My job was to make an inventory of the larger mammals in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and, using these data, to draw up conservation strategies. The work was particularly challenging because it called for knowledge of social geography, communications, and intercultural affairs in addition to my specialist scientific knowledge. By the end I was hooked: I knew that I wanted to continue working as a biologist in the realm of international cooperation, contributing to nature conservation and the transfer of knowledge.
This interest led to my participation in another short-term project: In 1993, I was involved in a mountain gorilla survey in the Impenetrable Forest (Uganda), which was organised by the Worldwide Fund for Nature ( WWF) and the German nongovernmental organization Mountain Gorilla and Rainforest Direct Aid. Later on, I also worked as a consultant, when GTZ and the national forest office engaged me in Benin in 1998. I participated in an integrated study of the Lama Forest that considered ecological and socio-economic aspects and contributed to the conservation of the forest and the rehabilitation of degraded areas.
Shortly before my Benin Lama Forest consultancy began, the opportunity arose to conduct a long-term study, financially supported by GTZ's Tropical Ecology Support Programme, on the influence of poaching on monkeys and the secondary impacts on the vegetation in the Taï National Park in Côte d'Ivoire. The work, carried out between 1997 and 2000, was done with the close collaboration of Inza Koné, an Ivoirian Ph.D. student.
As well as recording population sizes, we discovered that although Diana monkeys change their behaviour in areas where poaching takes place, western red colobus monkeys have not developed an efficient antipoaching strategy and are particularly badly affected by poaching. The disappearance of a species often has serious consequences for the ecosystem. For example, monkeys play an important role as seed dispersers. Many monkey species feed primarily on fruits, and the seeds of these fruits are either spat out or scattered through their faeces. Thus, by dispersing seeds the monkeys contribute to the maintenance of biological diversity. Our study shows that plant diversity differs between intact areas and areas in which the monkeys have disappeared as a result of poaching. The scientific component of this project contributed to my doctoral thesis.
Protecting the rainforests requires the collaboration of many different partners. In 1993, in recognition of the seriousness of the threat, the Ivoirian government, represented by the Ministère d'Agriculture et des Ressources Animales (Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources), and in close cooperation with the Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (a German development bank), GTZ, WWF, and the Dutch organisation TROPENBOS, set up the "Projet Autonome pour la Conservation du Parc National de Taï" (Autonomous Project for the Conservation of the National Park of Taï, PACPNT). This cooperative project, in which GTZ acts as lead agency, is endeavouring to develop the park's peripheral zones to offer the local population alternative sources of income and reduce the pressure on the park's natural resources in addition to supporting surveillance activities.
Currently, PACPNT is embedded in the Ministère de 1'Environnement et du Cadre de Vie (Ministry of the Environment) and is additionally supported by the Centre for International Migration and Development. Our project also formed part of an extensive network. Its unique structure meant that our project was able to combine both scientific research, in the form of close links with the Taï Monkey Project and the Swiss research centre Centre Suisse, and also applied conservation through PACPNT. We were particularly gratified that our efforts toward broad-based cooperation, both interdisciplinary and in terms of North-South cooperation, received recognition in the form of a Research Cooperation Award from WWF and Centre Suisse in 2001.
I would like to continue using my experience as a scientist in international cooperation and development, although it can be difficult to combine science with practical work. GTZ's Tropical Ecology Support Programme has made an important contribution to bridging this divide. Unfortunately, after working abroad for a number of years it is not easy to find specialised work in the domestic labour market. Despite the need for more cooperation, in particular (and as discussed at the 2002 Johannesburg summit on sustainable development) in the sustainable management of natural resources such as water, forests, and oceans, many development and conservation-oriented projects have been cut back in recent years. This situation makes it very difficult for young experts to find jobs in development and conservation. Furthermore, working in a tropical rainforest often means that we are far removed from infrastructure, and a considerable amount of time must be dedicated to simply running a project. This work, under extreme conditions and in a different cultural environment, is very valuable experience, although this often remains unrecognised.
From 1996 to April 2002, I was employed as a research scientist at the Department of Biogeography in Bayreuth. As of May of this year, I have been working as a research scientist at the Botanische Staatssammlung München, and I remain co-director of the Taï Monkey Project, coordinating ecological and conservation-oriented research in the Taï National Park.