Boosting conservation in Burundi

TBA alumni are making their mark in Burundi, raising interest in biodiversity conservation among students and developing a new course at Masters level to help address the current lack of training for conservation professionals.

Burundi is a landlocked, densely populated country, and the pressure on protected areas and natural resources is high. Recent political uncertainty has added to the conservation challenge, but in spite of setbacks, Dr Claver Sibomana, co-ordinator of the Burundi TBA Alumni Group, is optimistic that his Masters programme on Conservation and Natural Resources will be offered for the next academic year.

“I am hopeful that we will start this course in September 2016,” he says.

“And, if we succeed, it will be because of the influence of the TBA alumni here.”

Dr Sibomana is one of four TBA alumni now based at the University of Burundi; all are lecturers and three hold senior positions. Dr Sibomana is Head of the Department of Biological Sciences; Dr Gaspard Banyankimbona is the Rector, and Dr Tatien Masharabu is Director of Research and Innovation.

In Burundi, there is currently no specific training at university level for science graduates who are interested in conservation, which is why the new masters course is such an important focus for Dr Sibomana and his TBA alumni colleagues.

Dr Sibomana, whose own interest in conservation was sparked on a TBA field course in Madagascar in 2006, says that managing protected areas in Burundi is complicated by a lack of awareness of the issues among decision makers and local communities. One challenge is the number of people entering protected areas, such as the Rusizi, Ruvubu and Kibira National parks; the three most important in the country.

National parks are home to big mammals such as buffalos, hippopotami, different species of antelopes, crocodiles, chimpanzees and other monkeys as well as being rich in other animal life and plants. For local people, the plants – especially trees which grow in the parks – are valued as traditional building materials for homes and roofing, and animals are source of bush meat and traditional medicine. 

Dr Sibomana knows that raising awareness and inspiring the next generation to take an interest in conservation will take pragmatism, perseverance and patience. He is delighted by the popularity of a new Environmental Club at the university of Burundi, which he instigated last year. Already, the club has more than 50 members.

Dr Sibomana encouraged a group of students to go on a fact-finding visit to University of Rwanda, where a similar club offered a good model to help students to become more aware and involved in practical conservation. “They came back very motivated,” he says.

The members of the new club immediately set about cleaning up the campus and planting vegetation to create a green space at the entrance to the main campus.

“We still have the challenge of being so few, but I think this is a significant achievement.” 

Dr Sibomana would like more students to have the experience of TBA training and the opportunity it gave him to make progress in his career in conservation. “The short projects we did on the field course helped me to be accepted by my PhD supervisor to do my thesis in population ecology,” he says.

As a French speaker, he is also grateful for the support he received on the field course to strengthen his languages skills. “We received a lot of help and encouragement to improve our English. It helped me to be confident to study in English. We were motivated to do an English programme and Gaspard (Banyankimbona) and I have since both done our PhDs in English.”

The TBA course also helped to build confidence and develop networks. “The TBA introduced me to the Society for Conservation Biology, and I became a member of its Africa Section. I also became involved in the Regional Network for Conservation Educators in the Albertine Rift, University of Burundi being one of the institution members of this network.”

Dr Sibomana has just been in the United States on a course for Statistics for Ecology and Conservation Biology at the Smithsonian School of Conservation Biology. It is the latest development in acquiring skills and experience that he can apply in his home country.

“You see,” he says, “From going on the TBA course, I have had this desire to strengthen my capacity to do conservation; to link with other professionals and to make my contribution in Burundi.”

April 2016