Yesterday morning I spent about an hour with Rwanda’s most famous denizens, the mountain gorillas of Volcanoes National Park. It was a surreal experience that’s hard to put into words. But what was almost as interesting is the interplay between the conservation needs of the park and the needs of Rwanda’s far more numerous species: homo sapiens. It’s a classic balancing act between the economic needs of the people and the need for large scale conservation in general.
Rwanda’s population of 11 million is growing at an alarming rate. Even in this relatively remote corner of the country, there are people everywhere. Crowds of children line the road waving and smiling, and people, homes and intensely cultivated fields are seen in all directions. It feels more like a constant small town than anything you might really call “rural” and certainly not “wilderness.” Needless to say, despite Rwanda’s incredible economic improvements of the past 10 years, there remains terrible poverty, and the area around Volcanos was no exception. Without continued improvement in both education and economic opportunity, Rwanda’s population boom stands little chance of slowing down, leading to even more resource pressure and most likely more poverty.
So how is Volcanoes National Park using the notoriety of the Mountain Gorilla to turn things around?
For starters, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), something of an “uber-agency” which is in charge of establishing businesses and promoting investment in the country ensures that 5 percent of all receipts to the national park are turned over to community groups in the immediate park area. Specifically, as explained to us by park warden Prosper Uwingeli, money (about $100,000 a year) is turned over to leaders in 4 different local districts where problems are identified and money is allocated. Typically, water tanks for drinking and school improvements are at the top of the list.
From a strictly economic perspective, the gorillas are one of the country’s top draws with tourists spending thousands of dollars in the country on hotels, transportation, food and so on. RDB is acutely aware of the potential benefit these dollars bring to the country and is actively making improvements to the country’s two other national parks in the hopes that tourists will linger longer to make deeper visits to other areas.
RDB sets the price of permits at Volcanoes at a hefty $500 per person. They are strictly capped at 64 people per day in 8 groups. Each group visits one group of habituated gorillas for one hour a day. There are other gorilla groups which are only visited by researchers. There is certainly pressure to increase the daily allocation of visitors (it will be raised to 80 soon) and a delicate dance is in play between science- and economic-based decision making. Rwandan nationals get a significant discount.
We also spoke with folks at the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund who explained the nuances of gorilla conservation, along with some of the ways their organization was helping to improve more than just gorilla lives. The organization directly employs about 150 people and is active in providing educational opportunities about gorillas as well as basic science education for children in the area. Additionally, health programs have been improved to minimize disease transmission to gorillas and humans alike. This type of education, combined with RDB’s promotion of the gorilla as a beloved symbol of Rwanda have resulted in near universal reverence for gorillas and the protection they need, and most importantly, an awareness of basic concepts of ecology. Today, mountain gorilla conservation has been hailed as a rare success – the population has actually increased since the days of Diane Fossey to about 750.
Education combined with strict penalties have made gorilla poaching essentially non-existent in Rwanda. However snares set for other animals occasionally injure gorillas. The solution has been to train ex-poachers to become porters and even guides – a solution that not only means a better-than-subsistence way of life, but is obviously better for the park.
This doesn’t mean conflicts don’t occur. The first gorilla we encountered happened to be outside the park boundary, where eucalyptus trees can be found (delicious, apparently). Gorillas have yet to cause any real problems outside, but they make people nervous and may endanger their own health by coming into contact with sick humans. Today, gorilla groups are driven back into the park by folks beating branches if they stray too far. However, a less famous park resident, the buffalo, has caused considerable damage to people’s fields and has led to a great deal of tension.
One desired solution – a one kilometer buffer zone around the park planted with undesirable tree species – is unlikely to ever happen simply because it would entail the movement of an impossible number of people. Instead, a stopgap measure has been put in place – the construction of a buffalo proof ditch and stone wall along the entire park boundary.
Finally, the park also represents a hopeful international dialogue: It’s really three adjacent national parks in three countries. Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC all come together in the Virunga Mountains and all have successful conservation programs to varying degrees despite their many political shortcomings. All three countries have cooperated extensively on preservation and respect for the parks is so high they emerged relatively unscathed during the extensive recent wars in both Rwanda and DRC. Although Rwanda’s portion of the protected area is the smallest, it has by far the most Mountain Gorillas. Could this be testament to the better protection, political stability, and economic progress of Rwanda?