After a decade of conservation efforts, the population of the endangered rare mountain gorillas has grown by 26.6 per cent.
But the size of their abode has at best remained the same with growing concerns that their habitat is actually getting smaller and smaller due to destructive human activity.
Rwanda Development Board (RDB), the agency that leads the conservation efforts, is now looking for sufficient accommodation for the mighty primates.
On Friday, 19 new baby gorillas got names at the annual gorilla naming ceremony, Kwita Izina.
Since the naming ceremony started in 2005, on average, about 14 baby gorillas are named each year.
RDB believes the numbers would be higher if their habitat was more conducive.
So far, 258 gorillas have been named out of the 400 believed to be in the Virangas. The total global population of gorillas is estimated at 800.
According to RDB, the initial size of the gorilla habitat, Volcanoes National Park as of 1958 was 3,870 square-kilometres before it was encroached on by neighbouring population.
Currently, the park has been reduced to just 160 square-kilometres.
RDB is now contemplating expanding the park within the proximity of 1,000 metres outward of the current boundaries which would total to a quarter of the current park size.
Eugene Mutangana, the head of conservation at RDB, told The New Times that the plan is to either buy land from communities neighbouring the park or enter a long-term lease with current owners.
He says that the ambitious project should not be seen just as an evacuation plan for the communities surrounding the park but rather a long-term undertaking that will benefit all parties involved.
“The park expansion is not going to be a problem but rather a benefit to people and policy implementors through easing conservation efforts,” Mutangana said.
He added that the feasibility study on the park expansion is ongoing and they will ensure that affected people are relocated to model villages and still continue to benefit from revenues collected from tourism projects.
“For instance, we plan to build model villages—with all infrastructure such as good roads, water and electricity from where we would relocate the affected homesteads.
“We also to want to sit down with landowners, calculate the amount of money they generate from their land and make sure we give more than what they earn at the end of a fiscal year in the revenue sharing scheme because most are subsistence farmers,” Mutangana added.
As an incentive to involve communities in conservation of national parks, government dedicated 10 per cent of proceeds from the parks toward supporting these communities.
The reason behind increasing the park, he says, is not because they just need land but rather the fact that the number of endangered mountain gorillas is increasing.
“The more gorilla groups we have the more the size of infants that die due to overlapping.” Mutangana said, stressing the urgency of the issue.
Researchers say that when gorilla family groups increase in a concentrated area, dominant male Silverbacks tend to fight one another, due to the small home ranges, consequently dominant ones killing their weak counterparts and infants to take over new families.
“We name baby gorilla each year but numbers don’t increase as much because there is high mortality of the infant gorillas due to overlapping,” Mutangana said.
He said that due to frequent trekking and unfavourable human activity, such as poaching, gorillas have been forced to move further uphill of volcanic slopes, where it is “too cold” for infants to survive.
Mountain gorilla infants, according to research, are vulnerable to cold weather as it causes pneumonia.
“Human encroachment on the park saw a significant chunk from lower altitude of the park being taken with gorillas left to live in the higher altitude which is colder. This cold temperature, affect the infants causing pneumonia with the significant number of them dying of cold,” Mutangana said.
RDB is fundraising to buy the lower plains surrounding Volcanoes National Park to expand the habitat and allow the rare big apes to thrive.
During the just-concluded Kwita Izina gala dinner, about 500 tickets, each costing about $120, were sold in a campaign dubbed the “Expansion of Gorilla Habitat” project.
The funds collected are expected to go towards the expansion of the park.
Tara Stoinski, of Dian Fossey Foundation, believes that Rwandans and the government have put important focus on gorilla conservation, adding that gorilla habitat expansion is key for the apes to thrive and contribute further to the economy.
“There is so much advocacy that is happening and communities are benefiting a lot from the revenue sharing scheme. And I think Rwanda is setting great example on how to do conservation on endangered species.
“The expansion of the gorilla habitat is a challenging situation but it will definitely be good for the gorillas. The 1959 encroachment took a big percentage of the land and gorillas are currently living in a cold and congested area. If they can have more space and room, they are going to benefit Rwanda because of the role they play in the economy,” Stoinski said.
Tourism remains among the top contributors to the national economy.
Last year, the industry contributed $404 million (about Rwf340 billion) and of this, Rwf15bn was raised from selling permits for tracking gorillas.
This year, government targets $440 million from the tourism sector.