Gabon Marine Protected Area Network

Gabon Marine Protected Area Network

Case Study by Austin Dever

The Central African nation of Gabon is renowned for its pristine forests teeming with wildlife and protected by one of the finest national park systems in the region. Established in 2002, the nation’s thirteen national parks cover more than ten percent of Gabon’s total land area and provide sanctuary to the world’s largest remaining population of forest elephants, as well as gorillas, chimpanzees, mandrills, and numerous other species.

Gabon Map-web          Africa Map

But far less known, and equally important, is Gabon’s efforts to protect the biodiversity of its oceans and coastline. In a November 2014 speech before the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Congress, Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba announced the creation of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) network covering more than 46,000 square kilometers, or 23 percent, of his country’s territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).  Prior to the announcement, less than one percent of Gabon’s territorial waters had been designated for protection. President Bongo noted his nation’s extraordinary commitment would bring Gabon “near the 20 to 30 percent

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that marine biologists tell us is needed to maintain biodiversity and restore depleted areas outside parks.”

Forest Elephants © USFWS

Forest Elephants © USFWS

Gabon’s ocean territory, part of the Congo Basin – Gulf of Guinea Seascape, is one of the world’s most fertile marine ecosystems. Mayumba National Park on Gabon’s southwest coast is home to beach-loving herds of forests elephants and buffalo. Farther north at Loango National Park, hippos ride the sea swell. The coast also shelters the world’s largest nesting population of leatherback sea turtles and the Atlantic Ocean’s largest population of Olive Ridley sea turtles. Offshore, more than 20 species of whales, dolphins, sharks and rays including IUCN-designated “vulnerable” and “endangered” species such as the Atlantic humpback dolphin, manta ray and hammerhead shark, call Gabon’s waters home. Each year, up to 10,000 humpback whales migrate from the South Pacific Ocean to Gabonese waters to breed. Gabon’s MPA network will provide sanctuary for all of these species, and many others, while interconnecting some of the region’s most important marine, coastal, and terrestrial biodiversity zones.

Leatherback Sea Turtle-web

Leatherback Sea Turtle © Jeroen Looye

Challenges Ahead

Gabon’s effort to preserve its wild spaces has been fueled by a strong economy based on the extraction and export of abundant primary materials. Gabon is Africa’s fifth largest oil exporter and the oil sector has historically provided nearly 45 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 60 percent of national revenues. Other exports of note include manganese and timber, harvested from the forests that cover nearly 85 percent of Gabon’s total land area. While the Gabonese government has effectively leveraged these natural riches to increase GDP per capita to more than 10,000 U.S. dollars, nearly four times the sub-Saharan Africa average, severe income inequality has impeded the development of a diversified economy and the emergence of an entrepreneurial middle class.

Manta Ray © Elias Levy

The precipitous drop in global oil prices since 2014, coupled with Gabon’s declining oil deposits, pose a challenge to the nation’s conservation plans. The international community is committed to helping Gabon preserve its wild spaces but the country currently lacks the financial resources and law enforcement regimes necessary to patrol and protect its planned MPA network. Gabon is the first nation in the region to fully zone its EEZ to designate specific areas for commercial fishing, community fishing projects, oil exploration and extraction, and marine parks. Illegal fishing and ship strikes nonetheless remain serious threats to the region’s marine life as foreign fishing fleets and commercial traffic that intrude into protected zones are at little risk of detection and prosecution.

Libreville

Libreville © Manuel Dohmen

Gabon is also not immune to fallout from regional conflicts. While the nation is a relative bastion of economic and political stability, two of Central Africa’s largest countries, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have experienced devastating civil wars, military uprisings, and genocides over the last decade. Cameroon, which shares a border with Gabon, is at war with Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group responsible for terrorist attacks and kidnappings across the north of the country. This regional instability has hampered cross-border cooperation on conservation issues and provided space for opportunistic poachers, unsanctioned loggers, and illegal fishing fleets to flourish. Gabon’s conservation efforts, though commendable, are insufficient in isolation to preserve Central Africa’s incredible ocean and terrestrial biodiversity.

Despite the challenges ahead, Gabon has demonstrated extraordinary leadership by establishing a model for MPA networks in Central Africa. Its commitment to the conservation of wilderness on land and sea makes Gabon an excellent example of the vision of Nature Needs Half, and the actions required to move towards that goal.

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