Dr. Aurélie Flore Koumba Pambo is used to wearing many hats. “Too many hats,” she jokes. Chief among them is her post as scientific advisor for the national parks agency in Gabon—the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux du Gabon (ANPN).
Within that role, she serves as scientist, spokesperson, advocate, and personnel manager. Often, she does so all at once, as during the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity’s meeting in February 2020. The event, held in Rome, drew delegates from 140-plus countries to discuss how to curb accelerating biodiversity loss, with anywhere from four to eight people representing each nation.
But Koumba Pambo represented Gabon—a global leader in biodiversity conservation—as head of a delegation of two. “It’s so impressive,” says Paul Todd, a senior staff attorney for NRDC’s Nature Program, who also attended the meeting. “She has this kind of unique ability to play these overlapping roles.”
Koumba Pambo is a true force for nature in this central African coastal nation, where she helps to protect, manage, and promote the value of its 13 national parks. Gabon, one of six countries that share the Congo Basin, is a wildlife haven, home to nearly 200 types of mammals (including critically endangered forest elephants and western lowland gorillas), more than 700 kinds of birds, 1,000 types of fish, and more than 5,000 plants. Many species make their homes in the national parks, which represent 11 percent of Gabon’s territory.
Koumba Pambo is a regular on the global stage for conserving these critical habitats, which in themselves represent a natural climate solution. “The forest cover here represents 20 percent of the Congo Basin, the second lung of the planet,” she says. “These are important carbon stocks, and Gabon knows it is necessary to protect these forests to fight against global climate change.” In working toward that goal, Koumba Pambo represents Gabon and its stance on conservation in more than a half-dozen forums, including the Convention on Biological Diversity, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the International Whaling Commission, the African Elephant Coalition, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Her own background is equally global: Koumba Pambo grew up in the Netherlands, France, Congo, and Rwanda, and spent chunks of time in Cameroon and Niger—a result of her father’s studies and his work with the World Health Organization. She went on to obtain a doctoral degree in molecular biology and flora in Paris and then to conduct research elsewhere in France and in Senegal, first on bacteria and plants and later on pathogens, seeds, and crops.
In 2006, Koumba Pambo joined the agronomy and forestry arm of Gabon’s national research center, where she contributed to improving the health and yields of Gabonese crops, part of an effort to improve national food security. Since joining ANPN’s scientific unit in 2014, Koumba Pambo’s work has focused on formalizing and monitoring partnerships between the agency and various universities, nongovernmental organizations, and research institutions working in the national parks. Previously, she notes, foreign teams had been conducting research with little oversight or benefit to Gabon.
Last spring, Koumba Pambo helped secure Gabon’s participation in 30×30, an initiative to protect 30 percent of the world’s forests, rivers, lakes, marshlands, and oceans by 2030. It’s an objective informed by studies that indicate the world could be gutted of one million plant and animal species, many within decades, if human activity continues to chug along as is. To prevent this mass extinction, as well as better defend against the impacts of climate change, scientists warn that at least one-third of the earth’s land and marine ecosystems—on which we rely for clean air and water, food security, and healthy communities—will need to be protected within the next decade. (Beyond 2030, NRDC experts are advocating for reaching 50 percent, or “Half Earth.”) At present, an estimated 15 percent of the world’s land and 7 percent of its oceans are safeguarded.
“Gabon is always in favor of any initiative promoting the conservation of biodiversity,” says Koumba Pambo, and it was one of the first African nations to join the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, the intergovernmental group backing the 30×30 target. When nations meet again in October at the annual Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, China, they will be discussing a global agreement on the goal, something that Koumba Pambo acknowledges isn’t always met with enthusiasm.
“It’s not easy,” she says, of both the work to ensure progress toward the goal, as well as of getting other African leaders on board. Not only does a nation’s participation require approval at the highest level of state, but there is often reluctance by those struggling to balance economic development initiatives with conservation priorities.
Countries that can implement conservation efforts in a way that respects and incorporates the knowledge and stewardship of their Indigenous communities will be set up to succeed. “Gabon was promoting and protecting large swaths of habitat well before anybody was talking about 30×30,” says Todd, “and it has been promoting and listening to the local people who live in and around protected areas and other conservation areas for years.” In contrast, nations that shut out locals and Indigenous communities from such talks—neglecting to acknowledge that a quarter of the planet’s land area is traditionally owned, managed, used, or occupied by Indigenous peoples and that such lands tend to be healthier than other areas—will undoubtedly fail.
When it comes to promoting land conservation, it helps that Gabon leads by example. It already protects one-fifth of its terrestrial ecosystems and nearly one-third of its seascapes. And with the 30×30 target in mind, the country is considering setting aside more, with the creation of a whale sanctuary off its Atlantic coast and a series of wildlife corridors to connect habitats.
There’s evidence that these moves are boosting biodiversity. Animals like hyenas and lions, once thought to be locally extinct in Gabon, have reappeared in protected areas. And with the conservation of mangroves—which serve as important nurseries and spawning grounds for myriad species—Gabonese communities now see increased catch rates of bigger, healthier fish.
Nevertheless, climate change is taking its toll. Gabon’s dry seasons are lasting longer, and its rainy seasons are becoming shorter and more intense. Sea level rise is threatening coastal communities. And wildlife populations are suffering too. Koumba Pambo helped oversee the research of one recent study conducted in central Gabon’s Lopé National Park that found that hotter temperatures and less rainfall over the last 30-plus years have reduced the yield of fruit trees, a critical food source for endangered forest elephants, among other species. “Thirty years ago, an elephant would find a fruiting tree every 10 trees,” says Koumba Pambo. “Today, it is one tree out of every 50.” Since 2008, it’s estimated the physical condition of forest elephants has deteriorated by 11 percent, in part, due to hunger. Studies like this show the magnitude of the challenge that conservationists like Koumba Pambo are up against.
Yet the Gabonese leader remains steadfast in her goal, and laser-focused on convincing those in her position elsewhere to embrace the 30×30 target. “We will not give up,” says Koumba Pambo. “We will continue to contact other countries, to repeat ourselves, so that we are understood.” The biodiversity loss facing the world is alarming, she says, “but it’s not too late to act.”