A bright future for Rwanda’s mountain gorillas and adjacent communities

Dr. Kirstin Johnson
Friday 12 January 2018 14:42 GMT

On Wednesday 10 January, Africa’s critically endangered mountain gorillas got a major boost when the Rwandan Government received 27.8 hectares of land from the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) to create more gorilla roaming space in the famous Volcanoes National Park. This is the first expansion in three decades for Africa’s oldest park.

Rwanda has recorded an unprecedented 3.7 per cent annual increase in mountain gorillas over the last decade, with numbers rising from 380 in 2003 to 480 at the last census in 2010 (the next census results are expected in March).

This population growth has demonstrated the potential for mountain gorillas to thrive in larger and less vulnerable numbers, as well as the need for more space. Currently, the primates frequently roam outside the park boundaries, putting them in direct conflict with the surrounding community. Mountain gorillas are highly susceptible to diseases transmitted by humans, so there’s a crucial need for a buffer zone between their habitat and human settlements to better protect both people and gorillas.

AWF, with support from the Annenberg Foundation, purchased land directly adjacent to the park from Serena Hotels in 2017 to provide more space for the rare primates.

“Gorillas are a global treasure. The fact that people travel from all over the world and are willing to pay $1,500 USD to see mountain gorillas demonstrates the extraordinary value of these awesome mammals,” said Benjamin Mkapa, co-chair of AWF and former president of Tanzania, after the land-exchange event on Wednesday.

Following the donation from AWF, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) Chief Executive Officer Clare Akamanzi said, “Today’s donation to Volcanoes National Park is a major step in the consolidation of Rwanda’s conservation gains for the benefit of communities today and future generations. Through gorilla conservation and tourism, we are directly benefiting from these wonderful animals. The gorillas must be very excited and beating their chests about this.”

Rwanda has demonstrated that a country can support a robust economy including infrastructure development whilst simultaneously protecting the environment, said AWF’s President Mr. Kaddu Sebunya, during the park ceremony in Kinigi, northern Rwanda. He added that if mountain gorillas are going to survive in the long term, Volcanoes National Park must be strategically protected, and he challenged the African elite to lead the transformation of the continent and protect its natural resources.

“Conserving Africa’s wildlife is too important, too urgent, to be left largely to charity and the West alone,” said Mr. Sebunya. “Increasingly we see success when governments take charge of the vision, and when citizens own the narrative of conservation. What Rwanda and the RDB leadership are teaching us, is that there is nothing inevitable about conservation challenges in Africa today.”

In 2016, Volcanoes National Park generated an impressive $16.4 million USD from park entry fees. 10 per cent of earnings from gorilla tourism in Rwanda are funneled back into the local community to support shared social services, infrastructure development, employment, community engagement, empowerment, and livelihood development. Visitor numbers have grown 82 per cent since 2007, proving that there is also an increasing demand to see the primates in their natural habitat.

Mountain gorillas are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and are only found in the Virunga Massif and in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda). They represent one of the four great apes that live in Africa, but are the only great ape whose population is increasing.

Wednesday’s land donation marks another step in the right direction for Rwanda’s animal and human populations, furthering a model of growth and sustainability that has set the benchmark for conservation and development efforts across the continent. The handover ceremony, comes on the back of a large tourism investment forum held in Uganda in late 2017, co-hosted by AWF and Uganda’s Giant’s Club, that demonstrates AWF’s commitment to support tourism as part of Africa’s economic future.

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