Field Course Offers Students a Chance to Explore Tropical Conservation and Sustainable Development in Gabon, Africa

June 5, 2014

By Abigail McEwen, MEM'15

As seen from the helicopter, the bare brown earth of a palm oil plantation stands in stark contrast to the lush green of the dense, tropical forest that covers the majority of the surrounding land.

When toured from the ground, the same plantation appears to be a hallmark of economic prosperity and sustainable development in a country rapidly expanding its exploration of natural resources. But soaring high above the surrounding forest canopy, the full impact this activity has on the land is clearly seen: The plantation sits like a scar on the once pristine land.

This scene shows just one of the many conflicts between sustainable development and conservation that John Poulsen, assistant professor of tropical ecology, describes as he recounts his Spring 2014 field course, “The Conservation and Ecology of Gabon.”

During this course, which took place over spring break, Poulsen took a small group of Nicholas School graduate students (eight MEMs/MFs and one PhD) across the beaches, forests, savannas and rivers of Gabon, a country situated on the western coast of central Africa. Along the way, the students encountered wild elephants, learned the fundamentals of tropical ecology, and explored the tradeoffs between economic development and the potential loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

“The goal behind the course is to have the students gain experience in tropical conservation and ecology,” says Poulsen. “Not only are students experiencing the natural world, but they also are getting a vision of what sustainable development might look like and what the conservation challenges are in central Africa and developing countries.”

For the lucky group of students enrolled in this new course, the journey began in Libreville, the capital city of Gabon. Before heading deep into the forest, the students spent a night on the beach at the home of Connie Clark, a Duke research scientist who also serves as a research associate with the Gabon National Parks Agency and is lead instructor for the annual field course.

After this brief beach vacation, the students and Poulsen headed east through Gabon to Lopé National Park. They explored the ecology of the park’s savanna and forest ecosystems for several days before heading northeast to their next destination—Ivindo National Park—where they canoed through whitewater rapids to reach the otherwise inaccessible Kongou Falls.

After exploring, they returned to Libreville in the Gabon presidential helicopter. The ride afforded them a breathtaking bird’s-eye view and a new perspective of the land they had just traveled across. The last stop in the itinerary was a tour of the coast of Gabon featuring a discussion of marine conservation issues facing the country.

Throughout the journey, students had opportunities to explore tropical forests, tour oil plantations and logging concessions, and meet with a variety of experts on wildlife management, conservation, ecology and archeology.

For graduate student Theo Tran MEM/MBA’16 the trip represented a unique opportunity “to learn about a country from people who know it very well and to see things that you would never get to see otherwise.

“The course instructors could walk into the forest, stand and look around, and then tell you everything about what they heard and saw,” Tran says. During one memorable walk, the group encountered a herd of wild forest elephants. Despite their excitement and curiosity, the students and Poulsen followed proper protocol and ran away from the elephants, which are potentially dangerous. After running through a swamp, the team gained a safe distance and was able to observe the elephants.

For instructor Poulsen, the trip is particularly unique for students because it represents an opportunity to have a positive impact in a country that is in the early stages of economic development. “We can try to influence this so that we conserve as much biodiversity as possible and try to make as much of a low emissions development as possible,” he says. He emphasizes that the Gabonese government has every right to chose to develop their land, and that it is not necessarily a bad thing if measures are taken to preserve biodiversity and ecosystem services.

“The Ecology and Conservation of Gabon” (ENV 590) is a one-credit-hour field course. It will be offered again during the spring 2015 semester. Interested students should contact Poulsen. The course is funded by the Nicholas School and the Gabon National Parks Agency. Students are responsible for their own travel costs. It is suggested, but not mandatory, that students have a background in tropical ecology, conservation, or sustainable development. Students from all departments are welcome to apply.

Abigail McEwen MEM’15 is one of the Duke Environment bloggers. You can follow her blog, Toxicity Translations, at toxicitytranslations/.