Uncharted Forests

Interview with Project Support Officer for WeForest Ruben Foquet

A team of local guides and porters, armed with spears, leads the way to the dense lowland rainforests of South-western Ethiopia. The expedition uncovered many hidden treasures including new bird records for the area, endemic amphibians, and elusive mammals. Photo © Ruben Foquet.

Ruben Foquet grew up in Belgium where his love of grasshoppers and experiences volunteering on a large nature reserve near his home, ignited his fascination with the natural world and led him into the wilds of Africa where he now lives and works.  Ruben is professionally engaged in forest restoration as a Projects Support Officer for NGO WeForest, as well as volunteer project leader for BINCO (Biodiversity Inventory for Conservation). 

WildArk: Tell us about your background and how you came to work in forest restoration?

Ruben: I was born in Belgium, to a biologist mum and an IT dad, both with a healthy urge to explore the world. My love for nature was ignited when my brother and I started collecting rare and previously unrecorded grasshoppers near our home. Due to climate change, lots of southern European grasshoppers have been moving up north and we discovered some of the first species that reached the north of Belgium. We ended up studying grasshoppers on a 7000-hectare nature reserve next to our home. As teenagers, we volunteered there for six years, mapping out the little critters’ distribution in the reserve.

After school, I studied bioengineering in Belgium and did a Masters targeted at forest conservation, tropical agriculture, and remote sensing. I had the opportunity to focus on production forestry in southern Chile for half a year.

After I graduated, I did an internship with WeForest in Ethiopia for eight months where I was the project assistant helping out the Ethiopian team with data collection and analysis. Based on that experience, I ended up working for them in Zambia, where I am now based.


WildArk: What is it like working in some of these more remote parts of Africa?

Ruben: Challenging, yet highly rewarding. As far as remoteness goes, I think what will always stick with me are the uncharted forests in the southwest of Ethiopia. The country is quite a touristy hotspot on the African map, but people tend to visit the cultural, historical highlights while leaving the south-western part completely unexplored. This particular area borders South Sudan and it is where I spent two months. The diversity of ethnic tribes and biodiversity is immense and largely understudied. There are whole forests that haven’t been explored. When we did the first BINCO assessment of amphibians in this forest, we found tracks of elephants, which weren’t recorded to exist here.

Full of awe, Ruben stares at a Chapman’s pygmy chameleon, a critically endangered species in Southern Malawi. As part of a BINCO team, Ruben assessed the population size and habitat requirements of the species to support pragmatic conservation activities that will safeguard the chameleon from extinction. Photo © Delport Botma

WildArk: Tell us about the work BINCO does?

Ruben: BINCO focuses on biodiversity surveys. We work with local organisations and focus on capacity building while in the field. The main aim is to bring baseline biodiversity information to the foreground so that other organisations or governments can start to work on conservation.

WildArk: In what areas does BINCO focus its work and why?  

Ruben: The main objective for BINCO is to focus on understudied areas such as unexplored forests – my preferred focus – which might be of crucial biodiversity value and might even list as a Zero Extinction Site. BINCO has identified new species and has several species descriptions in the pipeline. From our study in Ethiopia, we are quite sure that we found a new frog species, which remains to be described. It is fascinating to conduct surveys in areas that hold biodiversity treasures unknown to science. So far, for BINCO, I have traveled to Afromontane forests in Ethiopia, cloud forests in Malawi, and freshwater lakes in Madagascar.

WildArk: Can you talk us through what an average field trip with BINCO looks like? 

Ruben: Next Monday, I am leading a BINCO expedition into the mountains of Southern Malawi to study the Spotted ground thrush (an endangered elusive ground-dwelling bird). For this expedition, we will travel with ten camera traps and separate audio devices to record these birds’ sound and location.

In terms of logistics (travel and permits), our expeditions are well-planned, and we work with local communities as our guides for local knowledge. However, once on the ground, the initial plans rarely hold and a fair share of creativity to solve problems is needed. Generally, we establish a basecamp close to the study site. Then we disappear into the forest for a couple of days, geared with tents, cooking pots and food, and return to basecamp to charge our electrical devices before targeting another part of the forest. Our goal is to try and collect as much data and inventories as possible. For birds, this often happens early morning (4 am in this part of the world), while for frogs a late evening isn’t rare.  It’s pretty much a 24-hour affair while you’re there… long days with little sleep.

(Left) A rarely observed frog species, the Spiny-throated reed frog, so rare that science did not even know the sound of its croaking. On Mount Mulanje, the BINCO team was able to record the croaks for the first time, expanding the limited knowledge on Malawian frogs. © Ruben Foquet . (Right) “A guaranteed way to observe elusive animals is by deploying 20 camera traps in an Ethiopian forest. Collecting the traps two months later is nerve-wracking. As one’s backpack gradually fills up with cameras, the fulfillment of spotting the well-hidden traps and verifying the photographed animals on the small LCD screen is genuine,” says Foquet. (Copyright: BINCO)

WildArk: Can you describe one of your most memorable expedition experiences?

Ruben: I remember walking through an Afromontane Ethiopian forest and bumping into members of the Sheko indigenous tribe. It was an otherworldly experience meeting people who had never left the forest. They live in harmony with their environment, and it was incredible to witness the lack of forest degradation. Being able to further explore that forest, knowing that the data we were collecting might help in the conservation of the area, felt like an enormous privilege.

WildArk: What is your most memorable wildlife experience while on an expedition?

Ruben: The most memorable experience is also my scariest memory, in that same Ethiopian forest. While deploying camera traps in the lowland forest, we had come across buffalo, elephant and leopard tracks, and the guide claimed that there had been sightings of lions. One night while spotlighting for frogs with two local guides, one equipped with a 3-meter long spear, who did not speak English, we heard the call of a hyena coming closer and closer. Knowing we might bump into a pack of hyenas or worse, was a terrifying feeling. Sometimes you get into these situations, and you wonder whether what you’re doing is safe. You can’t always be prepared for this kind of situation.

The Ethiopian BINCO team (from left to right): Ruben, Sheko tribesman and guide, Wondeme (a local hunter and guide), Matthias De Beenhouwer (Ruben’s brother-in-arms), Abeje Kassie (Ethiopian herpetologist), Sheko tribesman and guide.

WildArk: The world is losing biodiversity at such a rapid rate, can you please explain why the research conducted by BINCO is so critical?

Ruben: In my opinion, you can’t appreciate something if you have no knowledge of it. Habitats are being deforested and degraded and we don’t even know what is out there. We have no clue what we are losing; only that it’s vast. That is reason enough to go out and try to identify what lives in secluded parts of our world. As a society, we have a responsibility to unravel the natural mysteries, so others can start appreciating and valuing them again and eventually contribute to their conservation.

WildArk: The work you do for WeForest is quite different from that which you do for BINCO. Please tell us about the work you do for this organisation?

Ruben: WeForest is an international organisation based in Belgium, with projects in Zambia, Malawi, Ethiopia, Senegal, Tanzania, Brazil, and India. At WeForest, I am a Projects Support Officer, and I have been described as a jack-of-all-trades. I support all the different Zambian projects, focusing mainly on (digital) data collection and improving and standardising how we monitor our projects. Meanwhile, I manage the day-to-day activities of our project team in Mulanje, Malawi. During my work, I try to collect captivating photos of our project activities, and I am exploring video for the first time.

WeForest currently has four projects in Zambia: three forest restoration projects and one forest conservation project. We are collecting lots of baseline data to work in a more evidence-based manner. It is a pleasure to see strong, fully-Zambian teams run the projects.

(Left) In Zambia, WeForest supports several income-generating activities for small-scale farmers, like vegetable gardening. One of the main objectives is to reduce the pressure on valuable natural resources, by providing a diverse set of alternatives. (Right) After piling up chopped trees, charcoal is produced by covering the trunks with soil, and setting it on fire. The production of charcoal is one of the main drivers of deforestation in Zambia. WeForest teams up with farmers’ associations and government departments to curb the negative trend and incentivize farmers to protect their forests. Photos: © Ruben Foquet.


WildArk: Tell me about some of the projects and initiatives run by WeForest. 

 Ruben: Our projects are very diverse. For example, we have a project in a 4500 ha Forest Reserve which has been deforested for charcoal production. Charcoal production is a big business in Zambia, plagued by corruption. A large focus of this project is law enforcement. Generally, we engage local communities in the project design to strengthen their forest ownership and stop illegal charcoal production. At the same time, we acknowledge that by cutting off the income sources from charcoal, local people need to be offered an alternative.

Initiatives such as beekeeping, small-scale tree nurseries, sustainable farming and other opportunities are critical. We aim to bring communities together to ensure a very participatory process. We work from the bottom up, looking at the community’s requirements and wishes and how we can best facilitate setting up projects. We aim to allow people to have an alternative income that might help reduce pressure on the forests’ resources.


WildArk: How do these communities receive WeForest?

Ruben: It takes a while to build trust with communities, and sometimes they can be very resistant toward a new institution coming in. It depends on the history of exposure of that specific community in the past. It’s very encouraging to see that even when that resistance is there, our team can build relationships and work from the bottom up to help them take ownership of their projects.

On the mountain plains of Mount Mulanje, illegal transport of Mulanje cedar planks is a common sight. Notwithstanding decades of conservation action, the majestic and unique Mulanje cedar is no more. Though, there is hope. Adequate law enforcement operations are being discussed and thousands of seedlings are being planted on the mountain plateau, supported by WeForest. © Ruben Foquet.

WildArk: Do you have some longer-term projects in Zambia that are becoming sustainable?

Ruben: The implementation of one WeForest project is now coming to a close: a forest restoration project with hundreds of small-scale farmers incentivized to protect Miombo forests on their farmland. Here, the Farmers’ Association will ultimately take over our role in incentivising farmers to protect their forests. These relationships can be very challenging. A period of five years of monitoring and evaluation on this project still lies in front of us and we will remain in the landscape to guide them through and make sure all our hard work has been worthwhile.

WildArk: How can people support the work of BINCO and WeForest?

You can support by donating via their websites: WeForest, BINCO . 

To learn more about Ruben’s work visit his website.