DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO:
Eco warrior fighting a different war
Corneille Ewango grew up in the western Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). From the age of 14, he was collecting elephant tusks and meat poached by family members. By 17, he too became a poacher to fund his studies.
He wanted to become a medical doctor to bring health care to his village which lacked health services, but after his application to study medicine was rejected three times, he decided to study biology at the University of Kisangani.
While at university, he interned with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Within a few years, he had become passionate about botany and conservation. In 1995, Ewango received a bachelor of science degree and was employed as botanist and herbarium curator by the Centre de Formation et de Recherche en Conservation Forestière, next to the DRC's Ituri Forest, which is known for its biodiversity.
By 1996, the DRC was experiencing civil war. At this time, Ewango was in charge of the Okapi Faunal Reserve's botany programme. Although many staff members fled during the war, Ewango remained and protected the reserve's plants, animals and rare herbarium collection from soldiers and military officials engaged in illegal, anti-environmental activities, by convincing them that having an intact protected area would benefit them in the long term in the eyes of world.
At one point, as the war dragged on for years, and fearing for his life, Ewango hid in the forest where, with the help of locals, he managed to keep 14 okapi from the Ipulu Zoo alive. While in the forest, he engaged in research and made many discoveries, including identifying at least 600 new tree species and 270 new species of lianas (tropical vines). Due in part to Ewango's success at expelling poachers and miners, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve remained intact during the civil war which ended in 2002.
In recognition of his tremendous service to the reserve, Ewango's international colleagues found a way for him to continue his studies.
In August 2003, he was awarded a Christensen Fund Fellowship to study tropical botany at the University of Missouri in St Louis in the US. By 2006, he had earned his master's degree, and by 2010, his doctorate from Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
Ewango is now the director of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve which comprises about one third of the Ituri Forest. He is also part of a group that has been designated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to develop an ecosystem management plan for the DRC.
In addition, he has worked on the publication Flore d'Afrique Centrale (Plants of Central Africa) and the herbarium he constructed at the Okapi Faunal Reserve has become a training and research centre for tropical botany and conservation.
Ewango has received numerous awards in recognition of his outstanding conservation efforts.
In 2005, he received the Goldman Environmental Prize and used the prize money to build a new herbarium for the protected area.
In 2007, Ewango was invited to give a TED talk, and in 2011 he won the Future for Nature Award, which recognises outstanding international species protection efforts and includes a prize of about $73 000.
Based on the literature on international development and personal success, why has Dr Corneille Ewango and his conservation initiatives been so successful?
Some key characteristics come to mind:
He recognised that short-term gains mean little if they come at the expense of long-term sustainability. He used his creativity and imagination: when the natural treasures of his country were threatened due to war, he packed up the botanical collections he had been working on and brought them to Uganda for safe-keeping. When the war was over, he was able to retrieve the items.