Gabonese village children learn the importance of sustained logging in the country's forests
Humpback whales sport thunderously in the pristine ocean waters. Hippopotamus wade in the shallows of some of the world's most spectacular beaches. Forest elephants can be spotted on the edge of the nearby rainforest which is home to gorillas, panthers, rare birds and plants and where ancient trees twist themselves into unimaginable shapes.
The west African state of Gabon is little known to the larger international community, but to afficianados and environmental specialists it is sometimes called an unknown or hidden Eden.
At a time when many areas of the world are suffering from adverse climate change, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, Gabon is a rare exception, having avoided the worst excesses of wrenching change.
Indeed, in the last 10 years 50 new species of butterflies, 100 plants, three birds, one monkey, 15 new lizards and snakes, 10 frogs and 100 fish have all been identified, according to Lee White, the director of the country's parks system.
Gabon is a ‘lucky' country. When ancient ice sheets covered the region only a few forest areas and their flora and fauna escaped—two of them in Gabon. When oil was discovered the country escaped the environmental ravages visited on nearby countries such as Nigeria. As much as 80% of Gabon remains forested.
Most importantly perhaps for biodiversity preservation, the human population is small, an estimated 1.5 million people in an area the size of France.
To be sure Gabon faces difficulties. Animal poaching is increasing. Illegal logging has been around for years. Despite its oil wealth, the parks system is seriously underfunded. Infrastructure is currently inadequate to develop serious eco tourism.
JICA is involved in a series of projects, both in Gabon and other countries comprising the Congo River basin to help protect a region second only to the Amazon in its biodiversity.
In the case of Gabon education is key. Along the southern coast, Gamba is an important oil center but is also in the heart of a vast forest and coastal eco-system.
Yoshiko Fukushima from Kanagawa prefecture has been working as a Japanese volunteer (JOCV) with local schools teaching environmental education—the importance of protecting the region's natural heritage particularly for the time when the oil runs out.
She has helped form local clubs, helps run their activities and on a particular day recently was encouraging youngsters to re-enact an old Japanese tale about a child and a turtle – particularly resonant here because Gabon is globally famous for its leatherneck turtles.
Further north, the 4910 square kilometer Lope national park is a UNESCO world heritage site, not only because of its abundant wildlife but because ancient artifacts and paintings have established that the forests here have been continuously inhabited for 400,000 years.
But today there is friction. Local communities are poor, without basic amenities such as running water, transport or much opportunity to eke out a modest livelihood. The forest has been their natural provider but there is inevitable conflict over hunting animals for food or cutting trees for farmland.
Utako Aoike from Kobe City is also working with local schools – "We want the children to help educate their parents" – to try to restore a traditional balance.
"We are teaching them the importance of protecting animals, but also about pollution, the ebola virus, health issues, garbage etc." she said. "At the same time we try to promote and respect the traditions and culture of the people."
It is clear there is now an awareness that bio diversity cannot be protected by government diktat but that the local communities must be persuaded and co-opted into the battle to preserve some of the world's most beautiful and rare flor and fauna.