Natural World Hero

Jean Labuschagne

Dedicated conservationist, based in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Dedicated to conservation across Africa

Jean Labuschagne is the Special Projects Manager at African Parks and is based in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. African Parks has had some very high conservation success rates, particularly in Zakouma National Park, Chad. After suffering from conflict and severe poaching, wildlife populations in Chad declined dramatically, but with the help of African Parks numbers are now consistently growing, and the wildlife within the grounds is protected from poachers.

During her childhood, Jean spent a lot of time in various national parks in Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya, and conservation was therefore a main focus for her from a young age. In 2011, Jean began working in Zakouma National Park in Chad, and this is where she developed a love for central Africa and came to understand the urgent need for conservation work in many of the protected areas in that region. In 2014, she joined African Parks in Garamba National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and continues to work towards the conservation of African wildlife.

Interview with Jean Labuschagne

Tell us about the work you do and how it helps support front-line conservation efforts.

I work as the Special Projects Manager in Garamba and assist with proposal and report writing, logistics and administration, and coordinate any special projects outside of the park’s core budget. Garamba is located in north eastern DRC; a region plagued by poverty, insecurity and heavily militarized poaching activity. The Park has been managed under a Public Private Partnership between African Parks and the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) since 2005.
  

Through the long term management of the Garamba Complex, peace and stability is not only being restored to the Park itself, enabling wildlife populations to increase, but also to the surrounding communities that Garamba works closely with. Reaching a state of stability however is a long term process, and the Park is still one of the most dangerous parks in Africa for front line rangers to work in, and the law enforcement team still often comes into contact with heavily armed elephant poachers and rebel groups, operating within the 13,000 km2 protected area.

In terms of conservation, what do you consider the biggest challenges faced by the natural world today?

Population growth and mass consumerism. The demand on natural resources is increasing at an alarming rate – be it for survival in terms of space, agriculture, energy, protein, overall mass consumerism, even recreation  – the list goes on.

People in this day and age have more purchasing power than they have ever had, and are increasingly buying things that they couldn’t afford before.

The trade in wildlife products in mainly China and South East Asia is an estimated $20 billion/year industry, and is driving the deadly trade in elephant ivory, rhino horn and lion and tiger bones. Our desire for resources, regardless of the environmental price, is climbing at a rate that the earth simply cannot support.

How is your work supporting long-term conservation efforts?

African Parks takes on direct responsibility for the long-term management of protected areas. In Garamba, infrastructure has been developed, law enforcement systems have been put in place and are constantly being improved, extensive capacity building continues to be done and a qualified management team has been employed. Garamba holds one of the last strong holds of savannah game species in the broader region, with approximately a thousand elephants still remaining in the Park, as well as the last population of Kordofan giraffe in DRC and sizeable populations of buffalo, kob, lion, hippo and hartebeest.

Through the 11th European Development Fund, there will be an increase in activity in the periphery of the Park to ensure sustainable and long-term management of natural resources and a focus will be put on alternative livelihoods around the protected area. Garamba still has a fairly small population surrounding the park, compared to other protected areas, and it is hoped that through an increase in awareness, education and alternative income opportunities surrounding the park, the long term protection and survival of the entire complex would be ensured.

What have been the biggest success stories for African Parks Network to date?

There are countless success stories from each park managed under the AP portfolio, however the two most dramatic turn-around stories are those of Zakouma National Park in Chad and Akagera National Park in Rwanda.

Zakouma had lost over 4,000 elephants in eight years prior to African Parks’ engagement in 2010, and the elephant population had ceased to breed due to severe poaching stress. With effective management and law enforcement efforts, the herd once again started breeding and the Park witnessed three consecutive years with no known elephant-poaching incident.

All wildlife species are now on the increase, and the Park is visited by hundreds of local Chadian tourists every year.

In Rwanda, after the genocide of '94, Akagera was a warzone and the national park was halved to make space for refugees. African Parks and the Rwandan government signed a management agreement for Akagera in 2009 and today it is one of the most extraordinary turn around stories in the conservation world, with both lion and rhino having been reintroduced and a 550% increase in revenue generated from tourism over the past seven years, resulting in the park now being 60% self-financed.


What are the biggest challenges faced by African Parks Network and how do you overcome them?

Due to the increasing threats on many protected areas, particularly those in central Africa, managing and conserving many of these areas is becoming increasingly costly, if one is to ensure a long lasting effect. African Parks Network is a conservation NGO that survives off of the donations from individuals, foundations, governments, institutions and the overall general public. So funding is one our greatest challenges year after year, to help manage current parks and to grow our portfolio. There are 1,200 national parks and protected areas across Africa, African Parks is managing 11 of them, with the aim of managing 20 by 2020. An increase in financial resources would enable us to increase our network of protected areas under management and protect more wild places, countless wildlife, and improve the lives of tens of thousands of people living in and around the parks.

How can we change local attitudes towards nature?

Education and alternative livelihood opportunities. Many communities living beside national parks and protected areas have never spent time around wildlife or even seen certain iconic species, and as a result they don’t have a connection to them or fully understand the need to protect them and their environment. Exposing these communities to these areas builds a constituency for conservation, which, in regions with high poverty and reliance on natural resources, is crucial to the long-term success of projects.

In Zakouma, the Elephant Schools were developed in the elephant corridors, which educate herders on the importance of the corridors and best practice on how to avoid human wildlife conflict. 

However it is also vital that communities see a tangible benefit from conserving the natural environment and working with protected areas. Regulation of natural resource use or providing alternative income generating opportunities are crucial aspects to building this constituency - especially in areas where the local population relies heavily on the natural resources for their survival. 

Can we as members of the public do anything that genuinely helps preserve the natural world?

Yes – every environmentally conscious decision helps. No matter how big or small. Even if one does not have the means to contribute financially to a conservation organisation, or pursue a career in conservation - there are so many small changes that one can make in their lives that collectively have an enormous impact. Choose environmentally responsible products, buy less, don’t eat fresh produce that is out of season in your region, leave the straws behind, recycle wherever possible, use public transport more, educate your children about the conservation issues facing the world, make your next holiday to a conservation project or national park where you can learn about the work that goes in to protecting these areas...

each and every action helps, and it’s in our hands to ensure that those actions happen.

What has been your best, most moving natural world experience to date?

Exploring the eastern foothills of the Tibesti Mountains in northern Chad. It was an otherworldly lunar landscape where time had seemingly stood still and one could travel for miles without seeing another person. 

Who is your own personal Natural World Hero and why?

First and foremost my parents – they have given their life to conservation and protecting the Natural World and are two of the hardest working and dedicated people I know. They brought us up with plains and rocky outcrops as our playground and instilled in both my sister and I a deep passion for our planets wild spaces.

Rangers patrolling throughout protected areas across the world – these women and men are on the front line of conservation and work through incredibly difficult conditions to protect the environment. I truly take my hat off to each and every one of them. 

What is your dream natural world destination that you haven’t visited yet but would like to?

Patagonia. It’s so different from any wilderness I know and for as long as I can remember the name alone has hooked me. 

What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

Protecting our Natural World is no longer something reserved only for scientists or conservationists. Each and every person MUST do their bit; it is not only vital for the preservation of the planet's extraordinary biodiversity and wild places, but for our very own survival. Re-connect with nature, and make a change in your life to be more conscious of our planet and what we can do to protect it. 

After all, several billion environmentally conscious actions, no matter how small they are, do make a difference.