- Two of Niger's main natural reserves, the Aïr and Ténéré desert wildlife refuges, are in danger of being abandoned. Although one of the finest protected areas in the Sahara desert, the park has been without guards and administrators for ten years due to armed conflict and lack of resources.
– The Aïr and Ténéré Natural Reserves in Niger are in danger of becoming orphans, warns the Swiss-based conservationist union IUCN in a statement today. Nigeriens agree: "If we don’t act now, we are putting the reserves in jeopardy," says Elhadji Gagéré, Secretary-General of the local organisation GAGE.
For over a decade, during the 1991-1997 armed conflict between the Tuaregs and the government of Niger and ongoing unrest since then, the park has had no authority in place to stop poachers from hunting the last remaining populations of several endangered antelope species such as the Addax and Scimitar-horned Oryx.
Aïr and Ténéré protected area was established in 1975. It is one of the biggest in Western Africa, covering an area of 7.7 million ha and boasting the volcanic rock mass of the Aïr, a small Sahelian pocket, and the Saharan desert of Ténéré.
Just one year after its inscription on the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List, Aïr and Ténéré was declared a World Heritage Site In Danger in 1992.
In the same year, six Aïr and Ténéré staff were held hostage; a sad indication of the plight of protected areas during military conflict. As a consequence, the park authority was too weak to stop warlords and locals from poaching, cutting trees, and excessive grazing of cattle in the reserve.
- The unique vegetation of the park, made up by species of plants from the Sahara, the Tropics, and the Mediterranean, was subsequently severely damaged, according to an IUCN report. Also, the numerous archaeological sites and fossils of fishes, woods and dinosaurs were pillaged.
The internationally important population of ostriches, estimated at some 2000 individuals in 1992, was completely wiped out. Even after the hostilities were officially over, the park was used for military trainings by rebel groups, and all conservation activities were suspended, IUCN says.
The park until then had been managed by a strategy that envisaged to set up local management structures with the aim of both conserving nature and developing the region. Nomadic tribes and sedentary communities living in the area depend on stock-breeding and agriculture. GAGE and its partners assign them a decisive role in the management of the parks resources.
- Ecotourism, agriculture and animal husbandry are the main pillars of the strategy which intends to establish the conditions for a decentralised, sustainable use of the resources of the park, IUCN explains.
Mr Gagéré from GAGE adds that "the only way to stop the poaching of the last remaining animals and the plundering of the reserves' treasures is to re-establish an effective management for the park."
To revive the project, Mr Gagéré has recently made an appeal to all stakeholders concerned with the future of the reserve. "We will not solve the Aïr and Ténéré's problems if we don't work together - the public administration, the NGOs, the sponsors, the travel agencies, and of course the local communities," he says.
Since Aïr and Ténéré's inscription on the World Heritage List, and as part of IUCN's advisory role according to the World Heritage Convention, IUCN had regularly been reporting on the state of conservation of the site to the World Heritage Committee, the environmentalists report.
At its latest session held from 30 June to 5 July in Paris, the World Heritage Committee requested a joint IUCN/UNESCO monitoring mission to be undertaken to assess the current state of conservation of this World Heritage site before June 2004.
- An opportunity to draw international attention to the challenges of the Aïr and Ténéré Natural Reserves and similar examples from other parts of the world will be the forthcoming fifth IUCN World Parks Congress, to be held in Durban, South Africa in September this year, IUCN says. The Congress was to look at improving management of protected areas and developing adaptation strategies for these areas in times of trouble.
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