In February, Drexel University President John Fry and a group of Drexel leaders visited the Republic of Equatorial Guinea in support of the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program (BBPP), an academic and research partnership between Drexel and the Universidad Nacional de Guinea Ecuatorial (UNGE) that promotes conservation efforts and environmental research on the country’s Bioko Island.
Bioko Island is considered one of the world’s most significant biodiversity hotspots and is the site of Equatorial Guinea’s first and only continuously operated research station, the Moka Wildlife Center. The Bioko program works with and employs Equatoguineans to run the research station and seasonal research camps, conduct and monitor biodiversity research, and contribute to the country’s fledgling ecotourism industry. Drexel undergraduate and graduate students, as well as volunteers, are involved in all of the research activities at BBPP sites.
On Bioko, the Drexel delegation participated in several events and toured research sites operated by the Bioko program, which was officially started in 1998 and has been operated by Drexel since 2007. Drexel’s partnership with UNGE, located in the country’s capital of Malabo on the north coast of Bioko, hosts the world’s only international study-abroad program in Equatorial Guinea.
Accompanying Fry on the trip from Feb. 9–14 were Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University President and CEO Scott Cooper, PhD; Executive Vice Provost for Research & Innovation Aleister Saunders, PhD; Senior Vice President of Government and Community Relations Brian Keech; and Bioko program Director and College of Arts and Sciences Professor Mary Katherine Gonder, PhD. In Equatorial Guinea, they joined BBPP National Manager David Montgomery, who is stationed in the country for some of the year. It was the first time that Fry, Cooper, Saunders and Keech had visited the country.
While in Malabo, Fry also met with the president of Equatorial Guinea, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, to discuss biodiversity conservation and Drexel’s commitment to the Bioko program.
“Just as Drexel prides its role as an anchor institution in Philadelphia, we are also proud to serve as an anchor on Bioko Island and in Equatorial Guinea,” said Fry. “For years, Drexel and the Bioko program have had a very real and positive impact on the conservation efforts to protect the country’s beautiful biodiversity, while working hand-in-hand with Equatoguineans in this important endeavor. I couldn’t be prouder of this joint partnership and what it has accomplished.”
The Bioko program was started by retired College of Arts and Sciences Biology Professor Gail Hearn, PhD, as a study-abroad program at Arcadia University; she joined Drexel in 2007 and brought the program with her. Since then, Hearn, Gonder and the Bioko program’s team in Equatorial Guinea has evolved the program exponentially. In addition to hosting Drexel faculty, staff and students (as well as scientists from other universities and organizations) for research, the Bioko program has expanded to develop economically self-sustaining educational, conservation and micro-enterprising programs. These efforts were all funded by external sources which includes federal, corporate and non-profit sponsors, including ExxonMobil, which has supported the Bioko program for over two decades.
“It has grown into a multi-faceted program while remaining steadfast in its mission to demonstrate the economic benefits of wildlife conservation,” said Gonder, who has led the Bioko program since 2013 and, as co-founder of the Central African Biodiversity Alliance, has researched chimpanzees in Cameroon for 27 years. She visits Bioko three or four times a year for anywhere from several days to several months to visit the 30–50 program staff, community workers and scientists, including a handful of Drexel researchers, usually conducting research there through the program.
While abroad, the group toured several Bioko program sites and met with deans, faculty and students at UNGE to discuss future collaborations between the institutions. The Drexel delegation stayed overnight at a research camp on the island’s southern beaches, home to some of the most important nesting grounds for marine turtles. To get there, they hiked an hour and a half each way, even swimming across a river, and took in the local scenery filled with waterfalls, a tropical rainforest, meadows and an ancient volcano. They also visited the Moka Wildlife Center during a “Meet the Scientists” day for local children and toured a cacao plantation and an organic land snail farm.
“I was blown away by what the Bioko program has done, because not only are they doing world-class scholarship, but at the same time they’re engaging with the local community and bringing our cultures together,” said Saunders. “This isn’t just about collecting knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but to improve the world.”
For years, the Bioko program has welcomed Drexel students from the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science (BEES), which partners with scientists from the Academy of Natural Sciences who teach as faculty and work with students through classes, co-ops and hands-on research experiences, and also from around the University.
“The Bioko program has offered countless career and life-changing opportunities for our students,” said Norma Bouchard, PhD, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Students gain not only hands-on research experience, but also the cultural immersion and relationships that are paramount to the program’s ecological mission.”
Students from the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, for example, have visited to work with local artisans looking to design and sell jewelry and housewares. Now, the Bioko program’s potential to engage with students of all levels both from Equatorial Guinea and at Drexel, while also expanding the number of Drexel faculty and staff conducting research there, is growing.
“When you go to Bioko and see these extraordinary resources and offer, with goodwill and an open heart, some scientific perspective on that resource, it has significant reverberations,” said Cooper, who plans to further strategically support and facilitate partnerships between the Academy and its scientists with the Bioko program. “I think that the opportunity to research Bioko’s extraordinary biodiversity and understand this remarkable resource is appealing to the Academy, and the ability to have a positive impact in Equatorial Guinea is something that aligns with our commitment to problem-based research.”
During the trip, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea Susan N. Stevenson hosted the Drexel delegation for dinner at the U.S. Embassy in Equatorial Guinea. The Drexel contingent also held a reception for about 50 members and representatives from diplomatic, non-profit and corporate communities that have supported the Bioko program over the years.
“With this type of endeavor located in a remote place removed from Drexel’s campus, relationships matter,” said Keech. “Having the institution and institutional leadership visit Bioko sends a strong message about Drexel’s commitment to continue to support the work that the Bioko program has been doing for all of these years. And it gives those who have been there more credibility when having conversations with other government officials and seeking external funding and research opportunities as this project continues.”
The trip, including Fry’s visit with President Obiang, was publicized by the country’s news media through articles and television broadcasts. As a result of the visit, Equatorial Guinea’s Ambassador to the U.S. Miguel Ntutumu Evuna Andeme asked Gonder to return this spring to represent Drexel in a negotiation the country is involved in concerning the creation of the new Afro-American University of Central Africa.
“It’s important for everyone to see that what we do doesn’t only have impacts here in [Equatorial Guinea] but has rippled beyond this island,” said Montgomery, who has managed the program’s on-the-ground operations since 2015. “There are a lot of high expectations about what our partnership can deliver moving forward, and I am excited that Drexel’s senior leadership has clearly shown that they are fully behind the program.”
By Alissa Falcone