Today, some of the world’s renowned environmental conservationists are naming Rwanda’s baby Mountain gorillas at Kinigi, Musanze district in Northern Province. This year the Kwita Izina ceremony will be naming and celebrating 18 baby gorillas under the theme, ‘2009, year of the Gorilla.’
The very act of naming baby gorillas is one that Rwandans have adopted as they strive to create awareness and sensitise the population about the need to protect and conserve these animals and their habitats.
Over the years, mountain gorillas have progressively reduced in number and today, roughly 700 mountain gorillas are remaining on Earth. They live within the confines of four national parks in central Africa.
Half the gorilla population inhabits the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda while the other half is found in a mountainous region referred to as the Virungas, which includes Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda), Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (Uganda) and Virunga National Park (Democratic Republic of Congo).
These green, volcanic slopes are a perfect home for these apes. However, their survival has been shaken by the much violence that has stained this region, over the years.
In line with this, a daylong Conservation Conference was held at Hotel Laico in Kacyiru, Kigali, on Wednesday, June 17, 2009.
Various Gorilla Conservationists from around the globe in their different capacities met and resolved to find solutions to the challenges and also embrace opportunities, for Gorilla conservation in the greater Virunga Massif.
According to Emmanuel Demerode, the Director of Conservation at Virunga National Park in DRC, the major threats to mountain gorilla’s survival is the political instability at the Virungas as well as the thriving charcoal industry in this region.
“People in this region do not want to hear about gorillas and how to protect them. All they want is money, not tomorrow or in the future, they want it now,” he said.
Since 1991, the Virungas have been subject to political turmoil of extreme nature. The 1994 Rwanda war and the ongoing DRC civil war since 1996 have affected the survival of the mountain gorillas.
“The park has been the epicenter for the EX- FAR ‘interahamwe’ militia who continuously need financing for their activities,” Demerode said.
After the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, thousands of perpetrators belonging to the Forces Democratic de Liberation du Rwandaise (FDLR) rebels crossed to eastern DRC and found refuge in the confines of the Virungas.
Today armed groups control majority of Virunga National park as their main source of revenue.
Virunga National Park is the world’s largest and most diverse park covering 2 million hectares of forest land that is rich in resources and habitat to a variety of mammal, bird and reptile species.
This geography is what makes it conducive for the militia to thrive. They poach animals to sell especially gorillas which come at a high cost and they cut down trees to run the flourishing charcoal industry.
Burning Gorilla homes
Gorillas very much like humans live in social structures called troops. These are in communities of up to 30 individuals usually led by one dominant, older adult male, called a silverback because of the swath of silver hair that adorns his otherwise dark fur.
Troops include other young males, some females, and their offspring.
Under the leadership of the silverback which is also the alpha male, these communities move about the thick forest as they eat their vegetarian diet, climb tress and nest among shrubs.
Unfortunately for the mountain gorillas, human activities have affected their perfect forest communities and lives. The ever growing charcoal industry was cited by the conservationist as the current major threat to gorilla extinction in the Great Virunga Massif.
According to Demerode, Goma has a population of 800,000 who depend on charcoal as an energy source. 93 percent of this charcoal is got from Virunga National Park, 120,000 sacks of charcoal are sold per month and the charcoal industry earns USD 30million a year.
“This is an economic reality that the Tourism Industry has to face in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC,” he said.
The population pressures, poverty and struggle for a livelihood in these areas have forced people to persistently encroach the various parks as they till agriculture land for food and this has resulted in habitat loss for the gorillas.
Finding a way out
As a result of all these limitations, a number of gorilla troops have migrated and crossed borders to settle in the more secure environments of Rwanda and Uganda.
This transboundary movement of wildlife has eventually cost DRC to lose a significant amount of tourism revenue to its counterparts.
This has called for various conservation initiatives aimed at protecting and aiding the survival of mountain gorillas.
These include; finding cheaper alternatives to charcoal like Biomass stoves, transboundary collaboration, economic empowerment of the local population and sensitisation at political and government policy level.
According to Tom Sengalama, the Executive Secretary of the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration Secretariat, revenue sharing is only possible through cooperation between the three Virunga states.
Most important of all was the common decision to create awareness and empower the local population on the benefits of gorilla conservation and tourism.
In Rwanda, Tourism is the leading export sector and is continuously growing as an industry. Rwanda’s tourism industry has over 252,000 people directly employed in tourism services with employment rates projected at 490,000 by 2010.
Tourism’s impact on Rwanda’s GDP was estimated at 3.5 percent in 2008 and by 2016 tourism is expected to account for 5.8 percent of the GDP and 4.6 percent of employment.