MacArthur Foundation Funds AUNE’s Conservation Work in Africa

Beth Kaplan in Rwanda with conservation biology students.Beth Kaplin, core faculty member in AUNE’s Department of Environmental Studies, has received a third round of funding from the MacArthur Foundation to continue her work building an educational system for conservation biologists in the Albertine Rift.

The Albertine Rift, rich in biodiversity and natural resources, encompasses some of Africa’s most important ecosystems. Yet Rwanda and the other countries in the Rift region sorely lack people trained to manage those resources.

Kaplin’s project focuses on training teachers, revising curriculum and developing an exchange of teachers and students between AUNE and the Albertine Rift universities. Through the first two cycles of MacArthur funding—six years —the work has already borne fruit in the region:

  • AUNE is a partner in a fledgling network of academic and research institutions in the Albertine Rift, called the Regional Network for Conservation Educators in the Albertine Rift. “With climate change, there is more collaboration, because these countries share a lot of geography and habitat,” Kaplin said.
  • A new master of science program in Biodiversity Conservation at the National University of Rwanda, the first of its kind in the region, opened in January 2012 with twenty-four students, and just finished its first semester. Kaplin returned from teaching in the program in August , which helps her follow what the students are doing and assess how the program is functioning.
  • Another result of Kaplin’s work is a lively exchange of students and faculty between Rift countries and AUNE. Read more about it here.

Building a conservation culture
Kaplin has been pursuing this goal, with financial help from the MacArthur Foundation, for the last six years. “Historically, through colonialism and political instability, some of these countries don’t have a high-functioning educational system,” she said. Few people from the region hold master’s or doctoral degrees in conservation areas like wildlife management.

At the same time, ecotourism, anchored by the region’s famed mountain gorillas, has become very important to the economies of countries like Rwanda, where tourists pay as much as $500 to spend two hours with the gorillas. This critically endangered species lives in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and contiguous parks in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Poverty is high around the national parks, and these countries struggle to determine how to manage the parks most effectively with this kind of high human-population pressure,” Kaplin said. “Most of these people live a subsistence lifestyle, using wood gathered from their surroundings to cook on and growing all that they eat themselves.

“Rwanda needs people trained in managing wildlife, ecosystem services, climate change adaptation, biodiversity monitoring and park management, but there are few people in this area of expertise,” she said. “So the MacArthur Foundation grant is about how to build capacity in the country—and they decided one of the best ways is through higher education. We’re creating the next generation of leaders in natural resource management and biodiversity conservation.”

The Road to the Rift Region
Kaplin was drawn to Rwanda after hearing a talk by her future graduate advisor. She eventually went to Rwanda in 1990 to research seed dispersal and biodiversity for her master’s thesis and, after finishing her doctorate in 1998, decided to return to continue research and conservation work. In 2006, the MacArthur Foundation funded the first three-year project to develop a curriculum in conservation biology at the National University of Rwanda. Kaplin took a leave from AUNE and, her daughter in tow, moved to Rwanda for twenty months to launch the Conservation Biology Education Project. She returns every year.

“At first I did not think I would return to Rwanda after completing my graduate research due to the genocide and war and what had happened,” she said. “But then I came to realize that the best thing I could do was to contribute to the development of higher education for environmental and conservation biology work.

“I was not trained to help with AIDS research or genocide survivors or refugees. But I could help to build capacity for biodiversity conservation and conservation of ecosystem services, and help rebuild their educational system and programs that would train people in country for this work.”