Fish and Chimps

Readers of Northern Passages know that I am a board member of The Nature Conservancy chapter in Alaska.  You may not realize, however, that I previously served on the Michigan chapter board.  The Michigan board frequently travels internationally, and I recently had the opportunity to join staff and board members from Michigan in visiting some of The Nature Conservancy of Africa’s projects in Tanzania.  While the focus of this blog tends to be on Alaska, I thought I would share a few observations about this recent trip to Africa.

You might be surprised to learn that there are some important similarities between the ecosystems of Tanzania and those in Michigan.  I refer specifically to fresh water.  As you know, the North American Great Lakes are a large freshwater system, comprising 20% of all of the world’s surface fresh water.  That term excludes three major categories:  salt water in oceans, fresh water underground in aquifers and fresh water locked in solid form as ice.  Essentially, it refers to liquid fresh water that you can see.

Given its geography, a large part of TNC Michigan’s strategic focus is on the Great Lakes, ranging from the obvious issues of pollution and invasive species to broader ones involving habitat preservation, including along shorelines and in contiguous forests.

It turns out that Tanzania and its neighboring countries have very substantial fresh water resources as well.  Lake Tanganyika, for example, lies on the western boundary of Tanzania and is also bordered by Burundi, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  It is the longest lake in the world (more than 400 miles long), but fairly narrow -- so it does not appear particularly impressive on maps.  However, it is very deep, second only to Lake Baikal in depth.  As a result it is the second largest lake in the world measured by volume of water, again surpassed only by Lake Baikal.

In fact, Lake Tanganyika alone contains about 17% of the world’s surface fresh water.  Lake Tanganyika and several nearby lakes, including Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana, are sometimes referred to as the African Great Lakes.  Together, they account for 25% of the world’s surface fresh water.

The potential for conservation collaboration between TNC chapters in Michigan and in Africa is obvious.  Viewed on a combined basis, the two Great Lakes systems constitute nearly half of all the surface fresh water in the world.

Lake Tanganyika is mostly unspoiled as an intact ecosystem.  However, it faces challenges ranging from invasive species to the consequences of human population growth, which results in clearing and burning of forest for agricultural purposes as well as in increases of sewage and other pollution. 

We had the opportunity to visit several conservation projects, especially community-based partnerships in a couple of villages where we met with local leaders, toured women’s health clinics and saw examples of community conservation in action.  This was a wonderful hands-on illustration of TNC's science-based and highly collaborative approach to conservation, which is respectful of local issues and indigenous populations.

The area around Lake Tanganyika includes Tanzania’s Mahale National Park, which is home to one of the largest populations of chimpanzees.  Like the chimp populations studied by Jane Goodall in Gombe Stream National Park, which is also in Tanzania, the chimpanzees of Mahale have been studied for about fifty years.  Compared to Gombe, however, Mahale is relatively less threatened by habitat destruction for agriculture, so its chimpanzee population may be somewhat less pressured.

We were able to observe chimps in the forest near our lodge on several occasions.  Chimpanzees share about 98.5% of human DNA, so it is really amazing to spend even a brief time in proximity to these impressive animals.

We also had the opportunity to go snorkeling in the comfortably warm and very clear water of Lake Tanganyika.  The lake is home to a huge variety of cichlids, a family of fish species that would be very familiar to anyone who has ever had a home aquarium or visited a pet store.  Snorkeling provided an incredible opportunity to see many varieties of these fish in their natural habitat.

While I was on this trip, I reflected not only on similarities between our Great Lakes and those in Africa but also on high-level similarities, and some differences, between habitats and ecosystems in Tanzania and those in Alaska.  My ruminations on that topic will be covered in my next post.  See Getting it Right.