Category Archives: Conservation


Watching Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah makes me wonder: What gives this story such enduring appeal? It is scientifically implausible in all sorts of fascinating ways. The religious implications, if taken seriously, are deeply disturbing. And yet the story retains the mythic power to raise millions of dollars for its retelling, not just in Hollywood, but also in Kentucky.

In July, just a few months after the Noah film premiered, the state of Kentucky approved $18 million in tax breaks to support the building the Ark Encounter, a replica of Noah’s ark as interpreted by the Young Earth Creationist group, Answers in Genesis. Like its sister institution, the Creation Museum, the Ark Encounter will be a perverse sort of anti-museum, dedicated to ignorance and misinformation.  What is it about Noah’s story that inspires such dedication? Why would people of faith be willing to put such stake in a story for which there is no evidence whatsoever in history, archaeology, genetics, or biogeography, and which is so deeply implausible on the grounds of basic physics and planetary science?

As a kid, the Noah story was one of my favorite Bible stories – along with the Garden of Eden and Jonah and the Whale. These were among the few Bible stories that featured wild animals, rather than boring barnyard animals like sheep and goats. Sunday school handouts and children’s Bibles showed the parade of animals peacefully lining up to enter the ark. Curiously, people always seem to illustrate this story mainly with animals from Africa, rather than Mesopotamia, where Noah is usually thought to have lived.

Noah's Ark plate
Happy animals on the Ark.

For example, when my son was born, Mom gave us a set of Noah’s ark bowls and plates, which have been favorites of all our kids. This Ark has mostly African animals: a pair of giraffes looking out of the upper windows, a pair of African elephants, a pair of zebras, and a green bird that could plausibly be interpreted as an African green pigeon. Animals that could have lived in Mesopotamia include a bear, a pair of cats that seem meant to be leopards (or lynxes), two rabbits, a squirrel, and a pair of white geese. A pair of raccoons have also wandered in from North America.

Of course, if the Flood was global, than animals from all over the world should be there, but the African focus is interesting to me. Maybe Noah really lived at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, rather than Mount Ararat?

Growing up, Mom took us to church almost every Sunday. Dad came along to church twice each year, on Christmas and Easter, but otherwise spent Sunday mornings working on electronics in the basement or fixing things around the house. At our church near the corn and soybean fields at the edge of town, we sat in long wooden pews. Mom sang alto on the old Lutheran hymns, which the congregation sang in four-part harmony, accompanied by an electronic organ, which filled the sanctuary with magnificent sound. Pastor stood at the front of the church in his white robe, leading  the Psalms and liturgy in a clear high tenor, solemn melodies in strange minor modes. From Pastor’s sermons, I gained the impression that Martin Luther (or was it Martin Luther King?) had nailed his 95 theses to the door of our very church, which puzzled me greatly, as the door of our church was glass.

I grew up reading both the Bible and dinosaur books, with no inkling that there was any conflict between these two sets of information. The Bible stories were presented as factual, not just in Sunday school, but everywhere. Network television presented Biblical epics like The Greatest Story Ever Told and Jesus of Nazareth in much the same way that they presented mini-series like Roots and Holocaust: fictionalized presentations of real events. Movies depicted efforts to find Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat as a reasonable quest, which (based on tantalizing clues!) may have already succeeded.

I remember standing on the screen porch as a kid, five or six years old, singing a Bible school song about it raining 40 days and nights for the Flood. When I noticed Mom was in the room I stopped singing, embarrassed at having been heard, but puzzling over the lyrics. I asked Mom how many days it rained for the Flood, and she said, “Well, like the song says, I suppose.” That’s what it said in the Bible, so it must be true.

I read the Old Testament and was fascinated by the lists of the begats. You could connect these ages up and come up with an age of the Earth! I was pleased when I came across a giant family Bible with the dates right in there, based on Bishop Ussher’s calculations. The date of Creation, 4004 B.C., was a bit troubling, since I knew from my dinosaur books that the world was much older than that.

As I got older, I started noticing more and more the contrasts between different ways of looking at the world. Pastor one day mentioned in a sermon, “I will never understand how you can put green grass in a brown cow and get white milk.” He meant this as an illustration of the miraculous ways of the Creator. But this seemed to me an easy problem. Grass is green because it has chlorophyll. There’s no chlorophyll on the surface of cows, or in milk, so of course they’re not green. And cows are brown (or whatever other color) because of the pigments in their hairs. Why is milk white? I wasn’t sure at the time (maybe because of suspended fats?) but this seemed an answerable question to me, not a mystery.

I must have been in about sixth grade when I began to lose faith in the Ark. I was drawing a picture of it, and wanted to draw it to scale. I checked Genesis for the dimensions, and started thinking about how much room all the world’s animals would really need. That was the first time I remember doubting that the Ark really could have held all those animals. Tugging at that thread threatened to unravel the entire tapestry.

In Junior High, I attended confirmation class, and participated more actively in church, for varied reasons, including a growing obsession with the fantasy world of Dungeons and Dragons. My friend Tim and I were in the same confirmation class, and we often volunteered to serve as acolytes, which meant we got to wear medieval red robes and play with fire, lighting and extinguishing candles with the long-handled candle-lighter, which was satisfyingly like a medieval weapon.

Tim and I also attended Prayer Share meetings, where I had my first encounter with Young Earth Creationism. Our friend Amy, who went to a different church, insisted that before Noah’s flood, it didn’t rain. This was based on a passage in Genesis stating that Eden was watered with a mist. I argued with her that this couldn’t be. If a mist came and watered the land,  then the water would evaporate, form clouds, and it would rain. There’s nothing miraculous about rain; it just happens.  And yet Amy insisted that, based on this text, there was no rain before the Flood.

I was mystified by this sort of argument, yet as I learned on moving to Indiana, where Young Earth Creationists are thicker on the ground, this is a typical line of Creationist argument. And while I find the slipshod use of science in these arguments maddening, I have a certain amount of sympathy for Biblical literalists. They take the Bible seriously, and make an effort to follow through with the implications of that. If  the Bible is the Word of God, and every line is true, then Noah must have really lived and done all the things that the Bible says he did.

The Ark Encounter is the logical next step from the Creation Museum. If Darwin is a problem for your religion, then so are his predecessors, the geologists whose findings inspired him. In 1830, nearly thirty years before Darwin published the Origin of Species, Charles Lyell published his Principles of Geology, which persuasively argued that geological features are the result of natural processes acting locally over many years, rather than the outcome of a single global flood. Darwin carried the first volume of Lyell’s with him when he sailed around the world on the Beagle. When Lyell published the second volume of his book, Darwin eagerly picked it up in South America, where he collected fossils, examined geological formations, and shot lots of birds. These volumes profoundly affected Darwin’s views, describing a world where natural processes acting gradually over many millions of years create the features of the earth’s surface: mountains, hills, layered beds of sedimentary rock, uplifted and faulted and infiltrated by magma.

Lyell was a devout Christian, but he argued vigorously against using the Bible as a science book. Instead, he argued we should look to the Earth itself for evidence of the Earth’s history. Lyell’s arguments proved persuasive, leading the the founding of geology as a proper science, one which is central to an industrial civilization that is deeply dependent on good guidance for where to look for things in the ground that we need, such as iron, coal and oil.

Even though the last serious scientific debates about Flood Geology ended nearly two centuries ago, I can’t help myself from dwelling on other scientific implications of the Noah story. What would it take to make a world wide flood possible, for example? And what biological evidence would we see if such a flood had happened?

Maybe this comes from having a father who is an engineer. Growing up, conversations with Dad often ended up with him sketching diagrams on scraps of paper, working out calculations in scientific notation. So I find myself doing similar things, such trying to calculate just how much water would be needed for the Flood.

According to Genesis, the Flood covered the highest mountains. The highest mountain on the earth, Mount Everest, is 8.84 km high. The radius of the Earth is about 6,378 km. To calculate how much water you would need to cover the whole planet to the top of Everest, you just need to calculate two spheres: the volume of the Earth ((4/3)πr3 = (4/3)π(6,378)3=1.087 x 1012 km3), and the volume of a sphere of Earth plus Everest ((4/3)π(6,387) 3=1.091 x 1012 km3). Subtract the volume of the Earth from the volume of Earth plus Everest and you get about 4.5 x 109 km3.

Each cubic km has a million cubic meters, each of which weighs about 1,000 kg, so multiply the volume by a thousand million (109) and you get the total mass = 4.5 x 1021 kg. That’s a lot of water. Scientists estimate that the total mass of all water on the Earth’s surface today is 1.4 x 1021 kg. So Noah’s flood would require over 3 times as much water to be added to the Earth’s surface as is currently contained in all the world’s oceans, rivers and lakes. Where did all that water come from? And when the flood was over, where did it go?

The deeper you dig with this story, the more problems you find. For example, one of the clear predictions from the Noah story is that every population of large animals on the planet should show evidence of having passed through a very tight genetic bottleneck some 4,000 years ago. Human beings were reduced to a population of eight (Noah, his wife, their three sons, and their sons’ wives). Most other animals (except for the edible ones) had a surviving population of just two.

Every man on the planet therefore should be a direct descendant of Noah. Every man should therefore have a Y-chromosome that is nearly identical to Noah’s. Given Bishop Ussher’s timeline, the Great Flood occurred in 2,348 B.C., or some 4,362 years ago. If we assume human generation times of 25 years on average between the births of surviving females, then some 174.5 generations have passed since Noah.

(25 years is a bit conservative; the average time between mothers and daughters in a population of Polar Eskimos was 27 years, and 32 years between fathers and sons (Matsumura & Forster 2008)).

A recent study of mutation rate on the Y-chromosome examined men in China who descended from a common ancestor 13 generations ago (Xue et al., 2009). They found 4 differences between the Y-chromosomes of these men, and estimated the overall mutation rate to be 3 x 10-8 mutations per nucleotide per generation. There are about 1.02 x 107 nucleotides in the part of the Y-chromosome that they examined. The average man’s Y-chromosome should therefore differ from Noah’s by about (3 x 10-8 mutations per nucleotide per generation) (174.5 generations)(1.02 x 107 nucleotides) = 53 mutations. Which, out of 10 million nucleotides, isn’t very many. So most men on the planet should have a  Y-chromosome that is nearly identical to Noah’s. But geneticists find far more differences than this. One recent estimate of when the last common ancestor of all human Y-chromosomes (“genetic Adam”) lived yielded a date of 120,000 to 156,000 years ago. This is a lot older than 4,000 years.

And that’s just humans. For the Noah story to be true, every single animal lineage on the planet would have to show evidence of a catastrophically severe population bottleneck in recent history. And of course we see no such evidence.

Another testable prediction of the Noah story relates to biogeography. If the entire planet were populated by animals that Noah saved on the Ark, then we would expect to see some very striking patterns, based on the dispersal ability of animals. Suppose, as the tradition holds, that Noah’s Ark landed on or near Mt. Ararat in Armenia. Armenia should therefore be the center of global biodiversity. The rest of the world would be populated by animals gradually making their way from Armenia to the rest of the world over the past 4,000 years or so. Some animals, like many bats and birds, would be able to fly long distances and cross rivers and seas. We might therefore expect to see bats and birds worldwide. Other animals, such as many large land mammals, can walk long distances, but cannot cross major barriers such as rivers, seas, deserts, and large mountain chains. Consider elephants, for example. They can travel long distances, and we would expect them to travel far across Eurasia and across the Sinai Peninsula to Africa. Even elephants, though, might having trouble crossing the  Sahara, in which case the current abundance of elephants in sub-Saharan Africa poses a puzzle.

But that’s a small puzzle compared to the presence of large land mammals on any land mass not directly connected to Eurasia and Africa. That includes Indonesia, New Guinea, Australia, and the Americas. Bison, wolves, pumas, deer, llamas, and jaguars should be common in the area around Armenia, but they would never reach the Americas.

Many animals, especially smaller animals, and many plants, cannot disperse very far at all. Consider the sloth. Sloths, as their name implies, move slowly. They spend most of their time hanging from trees, eating and digesting leaves. Try to imagine Mr. and Mrs. three-toed sloth leaving the Ark, exploring the post-flood world of mud and dead trees. What would they eat? How would they travel? How would they ever get from Armenia to Central and South America?

As Darwin discovered on his worldwide voyage on the Beagle, the distribution of animal and plant species around the world only makes sense in light of evolution. Sloths live in South America because their ancestors evolved there many millions of years ago. In the glory days of the Giant Ground Sloths, sloths dispersed out of South America well into North America, but sloths have never spread beyond the Americas.

One could go on and on. It’s shooting fish in a barrel, really, or beating a dead horse, or whatever metaphor of futility you prefer. There are many pages of the Internet devoted to detailing these problems in mind-numbing detail, such as here, and here. This is all really overkill, since the Noah story is clearly just that: a story. And it’s a story that would make sense for a people whose history is entwined with the great river civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers. The discovery of a flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh suggests that the Noah story is a close retelling of that older story (or a retelling of a common ancestor of the two tales).

And yet, the Noah story still has enormous broad appeal. Why is this so?

Leaving aside the scientific problems, the Noah story raises all sorts of questions about God. Why would an all-powerful deity do such a bad job of making people that he has to wipe them all out and start again? Was everyone on the planet entirely wicked except for Noah’s family? Surely there would have been some innocent people among the masses of the wicked: young children, if nobody else. If God was unhappy with some men, why didn’t he just zap them? Later in the Bible God repeatedly demonstrates His selective zapping ability: striking Onan dead, for example, or the first-born sons of the Egyptians but not Hebrews. Killing everyone on the planet seems deeply unfair, unworthy of a just God.

So given all this, why does this story still hold such appeal?

As a kid, I suppose I liked the story because it had animals. Noah is a kindly old zoo keeper. What a cool job he has! Looking after all those interesting animals! I’d like to have a boat full of tigers and gorillas. And it’s an adventure story: Noah and his family taking care of all those animals on a boat during a flood.

One thing I liked about Aronofsky’s Noah was that it brought out something hidden in the Sunday school version of the story: this is a horror story. It’s about death and destruction on a massive scale.

The Sunday school Noah is a righteous man, a skilled carpenter who does what God tells him to, looks after his family, and saves the animals. He is a hero of conservation biology. But Aronofsky brings out much that is deeply disturbing in Noah’s story. What kind of man would shut out the world from the Ark, saving his immediate family and some animals, but nobody else?

Peter Chatterway argues that here Aronofsky is following a long tradition in Jewish commentary. For example, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach argues that Noah is a deeply flawed figure:

Noah is not a hero in Jewish lore. The Bible says that Noah was a righteous man “in his generation.” He was only a righteous man compared to the others who were far worse than he.

Now, why wasn’t he righteous? Because righteousness is all about what you do for your fellow man. And Noah does NOTHING for his fellow man. He doesn’t care, he has no compassion. He executes God’s commandment to the letter. So when God says “I’m going to kill everybody,” Noah says, “will you save my skin? Oh, I get an Ark? Okay, fine.”

[Noah] failed in the greatest mission of all. He failed to protect human life. And failed to fight with God when he wanted to take human life. He refuses to wrestle with God. Noah is a fundamentalist. He’s a religious extremist. God says “everyone will die” and Noah says nothing. But this is not what God wants. God wants people with moxie! God wants people with spiritual audacity! He does not want the obedient man of belief. He wants the defiant man of faith.

It isn’t until Abraham, when God says “we have the rainbow and I promise not to destroy everyone, but I will destroy these two cities Sodom and Gomorah,” Abraham does something audacious. He says “will the judge of the entire Earth not practice justice?” He lifts his fists to heaven! He raises a cudgel to Heaven! This made him the first Jew. A Jew does not just accept a divine decree, he does not just bow his head in silent obedience.

The word “Islam” means “obedience before God” or “submission before God.” Soren Kierkegaard the great Danish theologian sums up Christianity as being a “leap of faith.”

Judaism has no leap of faith. “Israel” means “he who wrestles with God.” You see none of that in Noah. Neither in the Torah or in this film, so in that regard, this movie portrays this very well. No other religion does this, they would see this as heresy. It’s amazing, it’s breathtaking!

The scientific debate about Noah’s Flood ended nearly two centuries ago, with the birth of modern geology.  What we have learned since then about the deep history of the Earth is much more interesting and satisfying than the old myths. And yet, the myths still have a hold on our imagination. This may not be a bad thing. The Noah story can help promote an appreciation for our responsibility to life on earth: we must be good stewards of our planet. At the same time, understanding Noah to be a flawed man, a failure in his unquestioning obedience, might help make us better human beings.



Matsumura, S. and P. Forster (2008). “Generation time and effective population size in Polar Eskimos.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 275(1642): 1501-1508.

Xue, Y. L., Q. J. Wang, Q. Long, B. L. Ng, H. Swerdlow, J. Burton, C. Skuce, R. Taylor, Z. Abdellah, Y. L. Zhao, Asan, D. G. MacArthur, M. A. Quail, N. P. Carter, H. M. Yang and C. Tyler-Smith (2009). “Human Y Chromosome Base-Substitution Mutation Rate Measured by Direct Sequencing in a Deep-Rooting Pedigree.” Current Biology 19(17): 1453-1457.


On June 10th, I traveled to the south of Gombe to visit the range of the little-known Kalande community of chimpanzees.

Map of Gombe National Park and chimpanzee ranges (from Rudicell et al., 2010)
Map of Gombe National Park and chimpanzee ranges (from Rudicell et al., 2010)

The Kalande community is one of three chimpanzee communities at Gombe.

The most famous, most intensively studied chimpanzees live in the Kasekela community in the center of the park. These are the chimpanzees that Jane Goodall has studied since 1960. They have the biggest range and the most members of the park’s three communities.

To the north of Kasekela live the Mitumba chimpanzees. This is a smaller community, which Deus Mjungu studied for his PhD research. The Mitumba community has fewer chimpanzees than Kasekela, but is still vigorous. They have a small range, but it includes excellent chimpanzee habitat with lots of food trees.

To the south is the Kalande community (also known as Bwavi). Most of the Kalande community’s range is grassland and woodland, with narrow strips of forest along the stream valleys. We know less about the Kalande chimpanzees than any of the others in Gombe. For the most part, these chimpanzees are still unhabituated, meaning they fear people. Researchers can follow the Kasekela and Mitumba chimpanzees around all day long, but they are lucky to get even fleeting glimpses of Kalande chimpanzees.

We aren’t even completely sure how many chimpanzees live in Kalande. Based on sightings and samples of genetically distinct individuals, there seem to be at least 9 chimpanzees in Kalande, but we don’t know for sure.

Skull from a male chimpanzee found dying in Kalande in 1994 or 1995.
Skull from a male chimpanzee found dying in Kalande in 1994 or 1995.

A small team of researchers monitor the Kalande chimpanzees. They collect fecal samples for genetic analysis, which enables us to keep track of individuals, even when we don’t know what they look like. Kalande has the highest rate of infection with the virus SIVcpz, which likely contributed to the decline of this community (Rudicell et al., 2010). Many females have left Kalande for other communities, both as part of the natural emigration process (females usually leave to join a new community when they are sexually mature), and because as Kalande declined, it eventually came to have too few males. Females seem to prefer living in communities with many males, both because many males are better able to defend the feeding territories that females need to survive and raise their offspring, and because females need unrelated males as mating partners. As the number of adult males in Kalande dropped down to one, or perhaps even zero, some Kalande females left for good, while others seem to have kept their Kalande home base, but visit Kasekela for mating.

Kat and Kazi, photographed when visiting Kasekela (20 April 2006)
Kat and Kazi, photographed when visiting Kasekela (20 April 2006)

Kati, for example, is a Kalande resident who has probably lived there since 1998.  Based on genetic data, we think she is the daughter of Patti who was known as Tita when she was younger. Since 2006, Kati has been making occasional visits to Kasekela. I saw her with her young son Kazi on one of these early visits. Of the Kalande chimps, Kati seems to fear people the least, which would make since if she grew up in Kasekela.

Deus and I took the boat to Kalande, where we met Ashaabu, one of the new Kalande research assistants. Ashaabu got his start working as a village Forest Monitor for his village’s forest reserve (part of the Greater Gombe Ecosystem project). Before going into the forest, we talked with Ashaabu for a while about which chimpanzees he has been seeing.

Kazi, who was just a little boy back in 2006, now seems to be the alpha male of Kalande, even though he is just a gawky adolescent. Based on how old Kazi looked back in 2006, I think he must be at least 12 years old now. Ashaabu says Kazi is around the size of the Kasekela male Fundi, who is about 14. The old male Renadi (or Leonard) hasn’t been seen for a number of years now, and I suppose must be dead. There might be another adolescent male, Pamera, but we don’t know for sure if he is still alive. Ashaabu has regularly seen Kati, Kazai, Katarina (Kati’s new baby), a big female without an infant, an adolescent female (who I think might be Pairott), and another young female around Kazi’s size. (Perhaps this is really Pamera? Might be hard to tell he’s a male if he’s still young and seen only briefly from a distance.) Ashaabu also mentioned Obedina, a female who had a big belly last year who might also have a new baby now.

After talking, we hiked into the forest, climbing a steep rocky path into Nyamagoma valley. Nyamagoma is the southernmost valley of the park, just north of Kazinga village. The path wound through an open woodland with a view of the lake below.

Ashaabu collecting Msongati fruits.
Ashaabu collecting Msongati fruits.

Along the way, we collected fruits and leaves for the isotope and nutrition projects. Given that Kalande has so much woodland, it will be interesting to see if the Kalande chimpanzees, or their foods, differ isotopically at all from those in Kasekela.

Ashaabu and Deus below a chimp nest.
Ashaabu and Deus below a chimp nest.

We followed the path down towards Nyamagoma Stream, where tall trees grew, shading the steep valley in green light. We didn’t see any chimpanzees, but we did see a number of nests. Chimpanzees build a new nest (or bed) in trees each night to sleep safely out of reach of any predators that might be lurking about. We found one cluster with five fresh nests, suggesting that up to seven chimpanzees might have slept there (if the group included Kati and Obedina and their new babies). It was encouraging to see so many fresh signs of chimpanzees using this valley. The Kalande community is still hanging in there, and perhaps they might recover, if the Kasekela males don’t catch Kazi and finish him off.

Ashaabu taking data on his tablet.
Ashaabu taking data on his tablet.

Ashaabu carried with him the tablet computer he had used as a Forest Monitor. He used the tablet to take pictures of the nests and enter the data, including GPS locations of the nests. It was quite stunning for me to think each of the villages around Gombe now has its own Forest Monitors, collecting data like this on their own village forest reserves, and loading it up regularly into the Cloud.









Director of Chimpanzee Research for Gombe Stream Research Centre.





Return of the Trees

04 June 2014

Gombe National Park is pretty remote. It is in the northwest corner of Tanzania, on the shores of the world’s longest and second deepest lake, Tanganyika. From the lakeshore at Gombe, you can see the hills of Burundi to the north and the mountains of Congo across the lake. It took me several days of travel, by train, plane and boat, to get to Gombe from our current home in France.

The research station at Gombe is only 22 km (14 miles) north of town, but because Gombe is surrounded by steep hills, you can’t drive there. Instead, we travel by boat, which usually takes 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on the conditions of the lake. The lake is often calm in the morning, but as the air heats up in the afternoon the lake gets choppier, until early evening when (usually) it starts to calm down again.  We left town at 2:00 pm, with a heavily laden boat and rough water.

Loading up Gombe boat






Having been away for two years, the biggest change I noticed was on the hills above the lakeshore villages. When I first visited Gombe in 2001, the hills outside the park were bare. Fields of cassava and beans were planted on slopes that seemed much too steep for agriculture. Red earth showed from erosion scars, including one in Mtanga village where a landslide in January 2001 killed 13 people.

Here’s a picture of Kazinga village, right at the southern boundary of the park, in August, 2005:

Kazinga Ridge 20050809




The park boundary runs along the crest of the hill, and apart from one big green mango on the ridge in the foreground, the trees end at the park. Just about everything on the slopes outside the park has been cut for firewood.

Kazing Ridge 20140604




In contrast, here’s how the same ridge looks now. It’s early dry season so the grass is greener, and thus makes the contrast seem even starker. But even taking this into account, what surprised me was seeing lots of trees on the slopes outside the park. Where the forest used to end abruptly at the park border,  now a blanket of forest drapes over the ridge, extending down towards the village. There aren’t trees everywhere, but even in Gombe the forest cover is intermixed with woodlands and grasslands, depending on the terrain and soil conditions. But that there are any noticeable trees at all outside the park is striking. The Jane Goodall Institute’s reforestation project really seems to be working.

It wasn’t just Kazinga village, either. Passing by many of the lakeshore villages I was struck at the contrast:  steep hills were now blanketed in green trees instead of bare red earth. The photo at the top of this blog post is Kigalye village, which has an especially extensive forest reserve. The trees are coming back.

After I got to Gombe, Lilian Pintea showed me satellite images that confirmed what I had seen from the lake. Not just along the lakeshore, but extending all along the crest of the rift escarpment, trees were coming back. This was the interconnected network of village forest reserves that had been promised in the Greater Gombe Ecoystem project. It really is happening.

The deforestation of the village hills was a classic Tragedy of the Commons. The trees provide many public goods. Their roots hold the soil in place, preventing erosion and landslides and protecting the watershed so important for the streams, the main source of drinking water for the villages. The trees provide wood for cooking fires, furniture, boats, musical instruments and traditional carvings. Many of the trees produce fruit eaten not only by animals such as chimpanzees and baboons, but also by people. Their flowers enable bees to make honey. The leaves of the trees shade the ground, slowing evaporation, helping the soil retain moisture. But because the trees are common property of the village, as the human population grew, people cut the trees faster than they could grow back. Soon the villages suffered the public costs of deforestation: erosion, landslides, fouled drinking water, lack of wood for fuel and lumber, and the disappearance of plants valued for traditional medicine.

In 1994, the Jane Goodall Institute started the Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education Program (TACARE). Twenty years later, with help from many outside sources, including the Nature Conservancy and USAID, the project really does seem to be succeeding.

Will the project be a success in the long term? That really depends on the people living in the villages, and whether, as the years go by, they perceive the forests as providing net benefits to them. There will undoubtedly be cases of human-wildlife conflict. Animals living in the forest reserves may raid crops; and people might hunt the animals. As trees grow bigger, there will be strong temptations to cut the trees with valuable timber, and decisions will need to be made at the village level about how to manage these resources effectively. But seeing these trees growing has given me hope that these are solvable problems.


A few minutes after we drove into Lake Itasca State Park, a large animal with glossy black fur crossed the road in front of us. Since we were in Minnesota, not Africa, I had to suppress my first impulse to think it might be a chimpanzee or gorilla, and decided it must be a black bear instead. The bear casually shuffled along, watching us indifferently as it crossed the road. As much as I enjoyed seeing the bear, it it did make me rethink my plans to go running through the park with the baby in the jogging stroller.

Visiting Minnesota’s first state park prompted many comparisons with Gombe National Park in Tanzania, where I have been doing fieldwork for much of the past 10 years.

In the early 19th Century, both parks were part of vast wilderness areas, still largely unexplored by Europeans. In both cases, English-speaking Europeans visited the area searching for the source of great rivers. Henry Schoolcraft determined that Itasca was the source of the Mississippi in 1832. Previous explorers had identified various other lakes as the Mississippi’s source, but Schoolcraft seems to have been the first to ask the locals for directions. Schoolcraft had learned to speak the Ojibwe language from his wife, Jane, and when he asked for directions, he had the good fortune to meet Ozaawindib, who hunted in the area and knew the lakes and rivers perfectly well, and agreed to show Schoolcraft the way.

Not long after, in 1858, Richard Burton became the first European to see Lake Tanganyika, which he claimed to be the source of the Nile. Had he arrived some 10 or 20 million years earlier, in the Miocene, he would have been correct. But since then, the Virunga Volcanoes had risen and blocked the flow to the Nile; now Tanganyika empties into the Congo River instead.

Being identified as the source of the Mississippi proved key to Itasca’s eventual protection as a state park. Gombe lacked such a geographical distinction, but had chimpanzees, which was enough to arouse interest in protecting the area.

While it was interesting to see the official source of the Mississippi (and fun floating down the infant river), the really striking thing about Itasca was the trees.

Red pines in Preacher's Grove, Itasca (

It’s easy to feel a bit smug about forests in Minnesota. After all, forests still cover much of the state – quite a contrast to central Illinois, where I grew up, where hardly any of the original habitat (tallgrass prairie) remains. What Itasca makes clear, though, is that these forests are, by and large, scrubby remnants. When Europeans first came to Minnesota, the state’s vast pine forests boasted many giant pines, said to reach 200 feet tall.

In 1837, the Ojibwe signed the Treaty of St. Peters, trading millions of acres of land for a promise of government subsidies. Logging companies moved in fast, and within a single man’s lifespan, cut down pretty much all the trees worth cutting.

By the time Jacob Brower visited Itasca in 1888 to settle a surveying dispute, Itasca had one of the few significant patches of old growth pine forest left in the state. Brower lobbied to protect the pines, and as a result in 1891 Minnesota established its first state park at Itasca. So now we can get a glimpse of the forest that used to cover so much of the state: stately red and white pines, hundreds of years old. In a modest, Midwestern sort of way, these forests bring to mind the great Ponderosa Pines of Yosemite Valley – a far cry from the usual thick tangle of aspen, birch, and (compared to Itasca) gawky adolescent pines and spruces that cover so much of Minnesota today.

Minnesota has had some conservation successes. We have a healthy population of top carnivores: 3,000 wolves (the largest population in the lower 48 states), over 20,000 black bears, and occasional visits from cougars. Species that were nearly eliminated from the state, like bald eagles, wild turkeys, and peregrine falcons, have made impressive recoveries. But the great pine forests will take centuries to recover — if they ever do.