Kinihira: It is a cool morning one day in late November of 2007. Mixing with the morning mist, pungent wood smoke from a cooking fire catches the sunlight. A small boy stands nearby, in a large, hilly pasture near the edge of the Gishwati Forest in the highlands of Rwanda's Western Province.
The pasture is filled with the stumps of cut native trees. Nearby is a tiny primitive hut the boy has made of branches and eucalyptus leaves. This is where he sleeps. He is tending eight cows that are wandering over what only a few years ago was part of a much larger forest.
The cow’s owner lives some distance away. Mindful that the cows were not allowed inside the forest, the owner did not tell the boy to keep them out.
The lush herbs and grasses in the forest were helping to feed his cows and support his family. The forest was providing water for both cows and villagers. Knowing that a fence would keep his cows from entering the forest, the owner had little incentive to do so.
After all, everyone was using the forest’s resources. Why shouldn’t he? He knew that there were still monkeys and chimpanzees living in the forest but believed he had no reason to care what happened to them. Today, thanks to a comprehensive program of community outreach, including ecoguards, people around the forest are beginning to see important links between their lives and the lives of the chimpanzees.
When the Great Ape Trust team first visited the Gishwati Forest in November 2007, we found a forest nearly destroyed. The forest was being used without control or restraint by impoverished local people cutting native trees to produce charcoal, removing fuel wood to cook their food, and seeking water and fodder for their cows. The cows were allowed to wander freely in the forest, trampling native plants and destroying a fragile ecosystem. In addition, local people sought natural fibers, vines, honey and native fruits. The cumulative impact of this ongoing non-sustainable use of the forest was devastating. Gishwati was hemorrhaging and needed protection right away. The Gishwati Area Conservation Program (GACP) was created.
Once Madeleine Nyiratuza, in-country program coordinator was appointed - and the legal limits of the forest had been determined and marked in November 2008 - hiring, training and deploying “ecoguards” to educate local people and to protect the forest became our top priority.
The Gishwati ecoguards began work early in 2009. They appointed ecoguards who lived near the forest so their salaries would bring direct economic benefits to families in these communities, as these benefits help increase local support for conservation. Helping people is both just and necessary, as we protect the chimpanzees and restore the forest. In addition, ecoguards coming from local communities better understand the perspectives and the lives of the local people who were still using the forest to meet their daily needs when our program began. The first four ecoguards were team leader Jean Damascene Uwanyirijuru, Etienne Gasominari, Christian Rugero and Alexis Ruzindana. In March 2010, following further expansion of the legally protected forest, two additional ecoguards joined the team, Edison Kamende and Etienne Munyabirori, to bring the number of ecoguards to six.
The ecoguards now patrol and protect 3,665 acres (1,484 hectares) including the existing core forest and areas under reforestation. They wear uniforms but are unarmed and patrol seven days a week, sometimes even after sunset, as cattle has been found in the forest at night. Ecoguards document where they discover illegal activities using global positioning system (GPS) units and carry two-way radios and cell phones for communication with other GACP staff and with the district authorities. Although the ecoguards live near the forest they often spend their nights in tents or outposts along the boundary of Gishwati.
When the ecoguards detect illegal activities, destructive of Gishwati’s fragile environment, they discuss with those involved about the environmental damage being caused and how this will impact their lives and the lives of their children. The ecoguards explain that the activities are now illegal and they return periodically to monitor and see if people have understood, repeating their clear educational message if necessary. They warn that the authorities will be contacted and fines will probably be levied if the offenses continue. On the third occurrence they summon local authorities for enforcement. Today illegal activities have largely ended within the core forest and fences keep the cows out. The ecoguards are now focused on monitoring the forest’s edge and the boundaries of the protected area, as well as continuing to protect new seedlings and regenerating forest in the now expanding Gishwati.
The GACP ecoguards are seen as educators first and enforcers second. They emphasize the benefits of protecting the forest when they talk with local people, including regulation of climate and rainfall, prevention of erosion and landslides and the economic benefits from tourists who will visit a restored and protected forest. Truly on the front lines of conservation, Gishwati’s ecoguards are making a difference every day, for both people and wildlife.