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Drexel Professors Mission to Conserve African Wildlife Reaches New Milestone

July 22, 2008

Drexel University professor Gail Hearn heralded the official opening this month of a wildlife research station on Equatorial Guinea’s Bioko Island, the first such facility in the region and a long time goal for Hearn, whose work was featured in the August 2008 issue of National Geographic. The field station is expected to boost wildlife conservation efforts in the oil-rich African country and enhance educational opportunities for its people.

Set in mountainous virgin rainforest, the station will serve as a training and research venue for scientists, students and others interested in the island’s rare primates, sea turtles and small carnivores and its hundreds of species of birds, reptiles, frogs, insects, spiders and plants. Bioko Island is rapidly becoming a center of global biodiversity conservation, thanks in part to its location in the Gulf of Guinea twenty miles from the West African coast, an insular existence that allowed its endangered monkeys and other wildlife to thrive in relative abundance.

“We are delighted to see this research station open,” said Hearn, founder and director of the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program, a joint educational initiative of the National University of Equatorial Guinea and Drexel. “It will serve as the lynchpin of conservation efforts throughout the island, attracting scientists and students from around the globe to collaborate with local researchers and enrich our understanding of Bioko Island’s unique natural heritage.”

The field station was made possible by a grant from the ExxonMobil Foundation. Her research was supported by the National Geographic Society’s Conservation Trust.

Bioko Island’s wildlife remains under serious threat from poachers supplying the commercial bushmeat market. Last fall Equatorial Guinea acted to ban the hunting and consumption of primates throughout the country, a forward-looking move to promote ecotourism as an alternative to oil revenues in the future. The island is home to 11 species of primates, including the drill monkey and Pennant’s red colobus monkey, both among the most endangered in Africa. Four species of endangered sea turtles excavate thousands of nests on the southern beaches, making it a major nesting ground. Despite intense conservation efforts, the survival of Bioko Island’s wildlife remains tenuous.

The field station consists of a staff house and a research lab in the highlands village of Moka. It is outfitted with indoor plumbing, electricity generators and the only satellite Internet connection on the southern half of the island.

Even before its official opening, the station has garnered the interest of scientists, university students, diplomats, school groups and Equatoguineans at large, all curious to learn more about the country’s rich natural heritage. More than 550 people have signed the guest book, approximately half from the country and the rest representing more than 35 foreign countries. Professors and students at Equatorial Guinea’s National University have enjoyed fruitful collaborations with such visiting scientists as American mammalogist Ron Pine, Kenyan botanist Quentin Luke, and Kenyan butterfly expert Steve Collins, who has already reported a new species of butterfly from the forests near the field station. Visiting students have come from Drexel University, Arcadia University, the University of Calgary, the University of Mississippi, Lafayette University, the University of Hawaii, the University of Alaska and the University of North Carolina, among others.

“Our conservation efforts are strongly rooted in educational exchanges, enhancing awareness of the island’s natural treasures both among local people and in the wider community abroad,” said Hearn. “These animals will endure only if concerned individuals work to preserve them from extinction.”

The field station has hosted training courses in global positioning systems (GPS) and wildlife monitoring strategies for local Equatoguineans, a three-week tropical ecology course for Equatoguinean and American undergraduate students and educational programs for school groups.

The station also serves as a climate monitoring site, measuring temperatures and rainfall and tracking the condition of surrounding trees, data that can be used to establish a baseline to study the effects of climate change. Equatorial Guinea has plans to be the first African state to adopt a carbon-neutral development policy.

“Equatorial Guinea has the opportunity to become a leader in African biodiversity conservation” said Hearn. “It still has intact ecosystems and abundant wildlife, and even more important, with the petroleum money, it has the resources to support research and conservation.”

A professor in Drexel’s Department of Bioscience and Biotechnology, Hearn received her bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr College and a Ph.D. in protein biology from Rockefeller University.

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News Media Contact: Niki Gianakaris, Assistant Director, Drexel News Bureau 215-895-6741, 215-778-7752 (cell) or ngianakaris@drexel.edu

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