One of the primary threats to Rwanda’s forests, particularly in Nyungwe Forest, is fire. Most fires, where the cause of the fire is known,are the result of local beekeepers using smoke to calm bees in order to collect honey from wild and manmade hives inside and on the border of the park. In response, WCS and its partners are implementing a program to regenerate natural forests in burned areas and prevent new fires throughout the forests.
Why do we do it?
Fires pose a serious threat to theprotection of Nyungwe National Park. In Nyungwe, most fires are started bypeople using smoke to calm the bees and gather their honey. During El-Niño years, when the climate was particularly dry, these fires have devastated large sections of the forest: approximately 12% of Nyungwe has been burned since1997.
Rainforest plant species are not adapted to wildfire disturbance and many species grow very slowly or require large amounts of rain for quicker growth. Dense ferns (Pteridium aquilinum) grow quickly in burned areas, preventing seedlings from other species from growing, which is why burned areas can remain treeless for decades.
How do we do it?
To lessen the impacts of fires, WCS and its partners lead an assisted natural forest regeneration program by removing ferns within burnt areas. Local cutting crews completely clear all ferns within established plots, which are designed to favor the surrounding area, preventing the need to clear an entire hillside. In fact, each plot acts as an “island” of regeneration by shading out adjacent ferns and reduces erosion by stabilizing soil, particularly on steeper hillsides. Plots are cleared every three months for three years, after which time pioneer tree species are able to out-compete ferns, allowing natural forests to regenerate.
Regenerating the forest also requires the help and stewardship of the local community. Through education and outreach programs, WCS and its partners support park authorities in educating local people and visitors about how to prevent and extinguish forest fires. Since illegal honey harvesting is a primary cause of fires in Nyungwe, local beekeepers around Nyungwe are encouraged to adopt sustainable and profitable beekeeping methods outside the park. Finally, by training local cooperatives to lead the removal of ferns, WCS and its partners have also created local jobs that are directly related to the regeneration of the forest and the protection of the park.
What have we achieved?
Piloting Fern Cutting Programs
· Through research and pilot regeneration projects, WCS and its partners have identified the most efficient way of restoring forest to burned areas in Nyungwe. Over time, research has improved fern cutting methods. For instance, research indicates three-month cutting intervals are optimal, and that it is unnecessary to plant trees in the cleared plots.
· Since 2004 more than 70 hectares of treated plots have been cleared of ferns to encourage forest regeneration. In these plots, over 20 indigenous species of trees have regenerated, compared to less than 5 species in control plots. Kitabi, the gateway through which most visitors enter the park, is one of the highest-priority sites for regeneration. Here, an area covering roughly 37 hectares visible from the main entrance road had burned in 1997. Since then, 21 plots, covering 1 hectare, have been cleared of ferns. Now, the forest is successfully recovering and animal encounters in recovering areas are on the rise.
Engaging Local Communities
· Each year, WCS and its partners join forces with the park authorities to alert local communities of the increased threat of forest fires at the onset of the dry seasons. Using targeted materials, outreach efforts have helped local communities better understand how to prevent and extinguish forest fires.
· WCS and its partners have also helped create local cooperatives that are trained in forest restoration, which directly links the economic benefits of local employment with forest regeneration and communities that understand the impact of forest fires.