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Cornell gets U.S. grant to teach Zambians farming alternatives that reduce poverty and protect wildlife

Cornell University is partnering on a wildlife conservation project in Zambia that saves animals' lives by addressing a powerful threat: Poverty and hunger that force families to poach or clear-cut forests to create temporary farm fields, among other unsustainable practices.

By teaching rural villagers sustainable agriculture, helping them get more cash for crops and linking such practices to wildlife conservation, the Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) Program is offering people economically, socially and environmentally sustainable alternatives.

COMACO, now in its fifth year, impacts 25,000 square kilometers and more than 30,000 households. It is run entirely by Zambians, with the sole exception of conservation zoologist Dale Lewis, the Wildlife Conservation Society director for Zambia who pioneered the approach. The Wildlife Conservation Society has recently begun a long-term partnership with Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine on several projects.

Alex Travis, Cornell assistant professor of reproductive biology in the College of Veterinary Medicine's Baker Institute for Animal Health, recently received a $1.2 million United States Agency for International Development (USAID) four-year grant that will test and fine-tune the COMACO model and send Cornell students and researchers to Zambia.

"This holistic approach involves business, social sciences, crop and soil sciences, food science, marketing and veterinary medicine, as well as wildlife biology," said Travis.

Fifteen Cornell researchers, including Travis and co-principal investigator Alfonso Torres, associate dean for public policy at the veterinary college, are participating in the project. Cornell soil scientists are studying the soil, composting systems and yields. Economists are helping with business strategies and cost analyses for regional trading centers. Ecotourism is being explored. And food scientists are helping the villagers safely produce packaged honey, rice, peanut butter and soy products that add value beyond the simple sale of produce.

In the Luangwa Valley, home to some of Zambia's largest national parks, 20 to 60 percent of households struggle for food. Inconsistent rainfall and shifts in government subsidies away from food crops to cash crops like tobacco and cotton have added to food shortages. Also, fertilizers are expensive and the soil is nutrient poor, leading people to cut down forests to create new fields that only support crops for a few years. To provide for their families, many people poach wildlife.

As a result, over the last 35 years, elephants (whose tusks are valuable for the ivory) have decreased to 15,000 from 90,000. The black rhinoceros population has vanished. And numerous species of antelope and the predators that depend on them are in decline.

Most poachers use wire snares and sell the meat to buy grains. In exchange for snares, which kill more than 5,000 animals in the valley each year, the World Food Program offers supplemental maize while COMACO trains villagers in sustainable no-till pothole farming using compost and mulch from leftover crops to improve their yields and replenish their soils. COMACO's trucks pick up produce and create value-added food products at regional trading centers that provide access to wider markets.

Also, in exchange for guns COMACO trains poachers in carpentry and beekeeping. Because bees depend on flowering trees, beekeepers have an incentive to preserve forests. COMACO has collected some 30,000 wire snares and 800 guns.

Already, Cornell's involvement is producing results. Last summer, a Cornell veterinary student trained more than 500 villagers and six COMACO staffers in poultry husbandry and health, leading to far greater poultry survival. Cornell has also provided a digital camera and satellite internet hookup, so villagers can send photos of sick or dead chickens to Cornell for web-based diagnoses. Cornell food scientists have improved the hygiene of peanut butter processing by teaching such simple practices as washing hands and wearing gloves and by improving the processing facilities.

Preliminary data for 2006 show a 15 percent increase in self-sustaining families and several-fold increases in producers' revenues for rice, chicken and honey (when compared with pre-COMACO prices).

Aerial surveys also show wildlife is prospering in areas where COMACO is active compared to similar surrounding control areas, Travis said. Although early indications are positive, more extensive research is needed to gauge the program's true impacts on wildlife and people, he added.