(CNN) — It was 2003 when the forests of the Usambara mountains came under siege.
The discovery of gold at the Amani Nature Reserve, 340 kilometers north of capital Dar es Salaam, had sparked a gold rush never seen before in Tanzania.
In just two months the local population exploded from 300 to over 10,000. Trees were being cut down to make way for encampments. Local streams were being polluted by sediment from the mining.
Then the government stepped in and said 'no more mining'.
"Our president at the time told us 'water is more precious than gold'," says local conservationist Mwanadini Kijazi who was part of the government's efforts at the time. "We'd go on night patrol. I'd go with my team, with the police, with the militia."
Mwanadini Kijazi is now a forester, conservationist, and primadonna of the Tanzanian wilderness.
This young sustainable agriculture graduate is on a mission to protect the Amani Nature Reserve. She still goes on patrol, but these days it's to stop people poaching timber and to help local people to live sustainably.
"The objective is to maintain the ecosystem so endemic and endangered plants and animals can be hosted here in perpetuity -- for now and for future generations."
Tanzania's first nature reserve
Amani is a biodiversity hotspot and Tanzania's first nature reserve. It was first opened in 1997 -- and with just 400 visitors a year it's a real hidden gem.
This utopia is home to a multitude of endemic species -- rare butterflies, birds, reptiles, flora and fauna. Its unique habitat is due to the severity of the mountains here -- from sea-level Tanga City on the coast of the Indian Ocean, come inland just 150 kilometers and the mountains rise rapidly to 950 meters above sea level.
"The place brainwashes you as you walk along the nature trails," says Kijazi. "You can feel the fresh air and the voice of thousands of small birds."
The wealth of species that call Usambara home include the Black-and-white colobus monkey, Jackson's three-horned chameleon, the Flambo tree with its edible fruits and St Valencious -- a tree that you can't find anywhere else in the world.
A rainforest in your backyard
Kijazi works closely with the local communities to help them to create self-sufficient businesses and prevent poaching.
"This is done through joint agreements in writing -- they agree to join our patrols," explains Kijazi.
"Every village surrounding the nature reserve has an environmental committee. Villagers discuss how we should go about the patrol and make sure the nature reserve is safe."
Jessica Pouchet, an anthropologist studying conservation, has been drawn to the area to see how this community-led conservation effort is working.
"One of the things that drew me here and made me want to do this research project is I always wondered what it's like to have a biodiversity hotspot in your backyard, in your everyday life," says Pouchet.
People have been living among biodiversity here for generations. Pouchet has found that they have a complementary relationship with their surroundings.
"One thing I've noticed is that the citizens here, more than anyone, intimately know the benefits of having a forest that mitigates rainfall and keeps moisture present," she says.
"If there's anyone who cares about the environment it's certainly someone who depends on the land for their everyday food and economic livelihoods."
Communities that live near the Amani Nature Reserve used to collect vegetables, fish from the rivers, and farm honey all from the reserve. These days to conserve the reserve they've built their own alternatives to poaching.
They've developed their own home gardens, built their own ponds and are making their own beehives to harvest their own honey.
"Every visitor who comes here will want to see how villagers are living just next to the nature reserve," says Kijazi. To her, the Amani Nature Reserve is a rare example of how conservation and people's livelihoods can work hand in hand.
"Some people will not understand how we are living together successfully as friends. But we join our hands together."