My first trip to Rwanda was filled with nervous trepidation. Driving up to the Volcanoes National Park from Kigali the weather was poor, with thick low cloud and no real view of the area except for the road and the human traffic alongside it, as the communities transported their food resources up and down the never-ending hills on foot, bicycle or motorised ‘bora-boras’.
We reached the site for the proposed Bisate Lodge and climbed up the hill to better appreciate the surroundings. The low cloud continued to stifle any possibility of a view, and although my colleagues promised that the area was surrounded by forest and volcanoes, it was impossible to prove. It was only hours later that the sun began to inch its way through the clouds, burning away the mist and revealing the surroundings. It was breathtaking to see the volcanoes and the dense forest, and to imagine the magnificent gorillas within, but equally enthralling to see the surrounding community as they tilled their land alongside the national park boundary. Most importantly, from my elevated viewpoint, I was able to finally understand the importance of human and wildlife co-existence, and the pressure that the Rwandan government is under in their fight for the survival of the mountain gorillas.
From our experience of building Bisate Lodge and immersing our business into a combination of community life, conservation awareness and tourism development, it brought to the fore the undeniable importance of a holistic sustainability model embracing protection and conservation of gorillas; the education of a broad spectrum of travellers, scientists, conservationists and communities; and most importantly the beneficiation of the communities living alongside these national parks. By protecting the biodiversity of the forests, one must believe that both humans and wildlife will benefit in the long term.
The gradual recovery of the mountain gorilla population in recent decades is testament to the Rwandan government’s commitment to protecting their habitat. Gorilla tourism has grown into a business generating in excess of $100m per annum, with direct income generated through gorilla permit sales alone in excess of $26m per year. 10% of this income is allocated to the communities who now have an incentive to protect the gorillas and their habitat as a long term investment. This revenue share programme is unique in Africa, and again highlights the political will of the government to protect and share its natural resources.
We have seen firsthand the communities and their commitment to this protection. A group of 19 gorillas recently foraged into a community village and fed on plants and fruit grown by one the Bisate Lodge staff members. When asked how he reacted, Innocent simply stated that ‘He is a gorilla. He can take as many papayas as he likes’. As much as this gorilla behaviour is not encouraged, it does speak to a strong commitment to their value to the community.
These gorilla forays into the community lands are indicative of a shortage of space in the forest due to the growing gorilla population and thus a new set of challenges is facing conservationists. A couple of years ago the African Wildlife Foundation purchased around 28 hectares of land adjacent to the Park and donated it to the government. This effective park expansion is an example of what will hopefully become a greater investment in land alongside the park to create more space for the growing gorilla population and developing economic opportunities through tourism.
As we prepare for World Gorilla Day on the 24th of September 2020, spare a thought for the many amazing organisations, individuals, community members, and of course the gorillas, and their fight for survival. Rwanda is a unique success story and the unfortunate reality is that Africa’s gorilla population remains under severe threat. World Gorilla Day is an opportunity for people all over the world to celebrate the gorilla, and more importantly, take action to protect gorillas in the wild.
As the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International states – ‘Saving gorillas is an important mission, but the value of this work is even more far reaching. When gorillas are protected, so are their forest habitats, which are critical ecosystems that support our planet and all life on Earth’.
The image I have etched in my mind of the view from the top of the Bisate Lodge hill will remain with me until I can return in the near future. The current health crisis that has impacted the world has been well controlled in Rwanda, and this effort has allowed the country to reopen their borders to visitors. Rwanda relies on tourism, so please support it. I cannot wait to get back and I sincerely hope to see you there too.
Written by Grant Woodrow
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