Ian Redmond: Gorilla Ambassador’s visit to Rwanda

Ian Redmond, Ambassador for the UN Year of the Gorilla, was in Rwanda to participate in the International Conference on Gorilla Conservation which preceded the Kwita Izina Ceremony.  As well as being Ambassador for this year, he continues as Chief Consultant for GRASP, the UNEP/UNESCO Great Ape Survival Partnership, whose key thrust is to ensure conservation of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans - all endangered species.
Dr. Ian Redmond chats with Prime Minister Bernard Makuza at Kinigi venue of Kwita Izina.
Dr. Ian Redmond chats with Prime Minister Bernard Makuza at Kinigi venue of Kwita Izina.

Ian Redmond, Ambassador for the UN Year of the Gorilla, was in Rwanda to participate in the International Conference on Gorilla Conservation which preceded the Kwita Izina Ceremony.  As well as being Ambassador for this year, he continues as Chief Consultant for GRASP, the UNEP/UNESCO Great Ape Survival Partnership, whose key thrust is to ensure conservation of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans - all endangered species.

Part of Redmond’s duties are fund-raising and developing awareness about the need by various actors to support conservation efforts of all the great apes, especially gorillas. The New Time’s Fred Oluoch-Ojiwah caught up with Ambassador during the 5th edition of the Kwita Izina. Excerpts

TNT: Ambassador Ian Redmond kindly share with readers the key focus areas of your ambassadorial duties.

IR: It is 33 years this year since I first came to Rwanda to work with Nyiramatchabelli – the late Dr Dian Fossey – and I have spent much of my time since then talking about gorillas, writing about gorillas, studying and filming gorillas.  

Thus, my ambassadorial position has simply given more impetus to the work I already do, but on a higher level.  The YoG is an international campaign in support of the new Gorilla Agreement, a legally binding treaty agreed on by the 10 gorilla range states (most people don’t realise that out of nearly 200 countries in the world, only 10 have gorillas, and all of them are in Africa).   It is fantastic how many people and organisations have joined in to make YoG2009 a success.  

The campaign was launched in Rome in December by the Convention on Migratory Species, with GRASP and WAZA, the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria;  all over the world governments, conservation organisations and zoos are organising conferences, fund-raising events, public lectures, gorilla film shows, etc. 

I have already taken part in many events in UK, Europe and Africa, and later this year will do a lecture tour in North America and attend various environmental conferences.   But believe me nothing could outshine the Kwita Izina I have just witnessed!

TNT: Do your efforts entail fundraising? If so then the global financial crisis has hit what could easily be your targeted sources. So what is your plan B if any?

IR: Of course people all over the world are feeling the pinch financially, and this affects donations to charities, but many small donations can add up to significant amounts which can fund projects. 
The various partners are welcome to use the YoG to raise funds for their own gorilla projects, and there is a list of priority projects for any donations to YoG itself – see www.YoG2009.org for details.  

As for Plan B – that should in fact be Plan A – there is a growing recognition that everyone on the planet benefits from the eco-system services provided by tropical forests – carbon storage, oxygen production, climate stability global rainfall and biodiversity – and yet none of us pay for them.

More and more decision-makers agree this must change, and the UN Climate Conference to be held in Copenhagen this December will be where we hope the first steps will be taken by including tropical forests in the post-Kyoto climate agreement, which is currently being negotiated.  

If carbon finance is used to better manage and monitor tropical forests, it will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation, it should conserve endangered species such as gorillas so they continue to play their vital role in the ecology of their habitat.

TNT:How do you intend to ensure a sustainable conservation for Gorillas in as far as creating a balance between tourism and conservation is concerned in Rwanda?

IR: Rwanda seems to be striking that balance very well, with professional guides and calm, habituated gorillas giving an outstanding experience to every visitor who tracks what Dian Fossey used to call ‘the greatest of the great apes’.  

Our hope is that Rwanda, Uganda and Eastern DRC will be able to share their experiences with the other seven countries – perhaps by sending staff on secondment to work in, say, Gabon or Cameroon or Congo Brazzaville, or by inviting people trying to develop gorilla tourism in those countries to work here for a few weeks and see how you do it.  

Circumstances are different in each country, so methods will likely need to be adapted to fit, but the exchange of skills and experiences would be very valuable.

TNT:Talk about the projects centred around giving back to the societies around the Gorilla nests in Rwanda.

IR: The practice of revenue sharing is one of the keys to widespread acceptance by surrounding communities of the need for protecting the Virunga Volcanoes Conservation Area.  

We should remember, though, that it is not just about tourism dollars.   Forests provide many services to everyone just by being there;  water is a good example: The Volcanoes National Park is only about half of one per cent of Rwanda’s area, and yet it receives about 10 per cent of the country’s rainfall, and the forest stores that rain and releases it slowly during the dry season.  

Gorillas disperse the seeds of trees such as Pygeum Africana and so by protecting gorillas you also guarantee the next generation of trees and other plants that rely on them to spread their seeds.

TNT:How would you rate Gorilla tracking as a regional tourism menu? Is it among the most sought after regionally?

IR: Over the years I have introduced hundreds of tourists to gorillas;  some of them are wealthy people who have sailed up the Amazon, visited Antarctica and watched wildlife all over the world, and yet almost without exception they come down the mountain tired, wet, scratched and muddy saying that meeting gorillas is the best experience of their lives!  

At the same time, many of them say they were drawn to this region by the gorillas, but they fall in love with the people too – the friendly welcome and fabulous culture is just as important to visitors.

TNT:You are just from Akagera I presume to see what Rwanda Tourism has to offer. What is your take about our destination viz other regions.

IR: It was wonderful to see the Akagera Lodge refurbished, and the views there are world-class.  I was saddened a few years ago when Akagera was reduced in size, but from what I have heard of the government’s environmental policies today, the importance of rebuilding eco-systems outside of protected areas is well understood.  

Our challenge in the 21st Century is to help communities develop and improve their standard of living in a way that is compatible with a healthy planet, and that means adapting our farming methods to become more sustainable, and planting more trees (especially indigenous species, which also support bird and insect life).   

TNT: What is the best approach of deepening and integrating Rwandan Tourism into the regional and global circuits?

IR: This seems to be happening already, as more hotels are built, catering for the budget, mid-range and wealthy visitors, roads have been improved and I understand there are plans for a bigger airport to attract more carriers. 

You might want to bear in mind that everyone is seeking to reduce their carbon footprint and thinking twice about flying – better bus services and maybe even a railway link to East Africa would be more in keeping with the low-carbon economy the world needs to adopt.  

Perhaps Rwanda can lead the way and become the first zero-carbon country?
TNT:Is it true to assume that Kwita Izina is now an international brand ,uniquely African and crafted by Africa with an intent of showing the world that balance is the essence of conservation?

IR: Yes.

TNT:What is your general perception of the rebirth, in effect the Renaissance that is going around Rwanda?

IR: Impressive, very impressive – I was in Rwanda in August 1994 to help friends and colleagues to rebuild their lives and re-start the conservation work, and the transformation is almost beyond belief.  

There are many problems still, of course, and we still have people living in poverty without access to clean water, health care and job prospects, but Rwanda is moving in the right direction and at a speed that few would have predicted possible in the dark days of the mid-1990s.  

I have no doubt that Rwanda’s example will be emulated by other nations emerging from conflict – and what is pertinent to this Year of the Gorilla is that the UN is now very interested in the way that gorilla conservation has helped peace-building efforts in this region, and we are seeking to apply lessons learned here to other conflict zones where conservation of great apes can bring people together to live in peace.
TNT:Rwanda still has challenges to address in as far as sustainable tourism is concerned. Any forms of advice to policy makers and industry stakeholders?

IR: Tourists who fly increasingly want to offset the resulting carbon emissions;  Rwanda is trying to reforest its denuded hillsides – why not put these two facts together and offer every visitor the chance to offset the greenhouse gas emissions from their travel by contributing to a community tree-planting project.  

In fact, why not invite every tourist to visit such communities and help them plant some trees?



What is the Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP)?

Great ape populations are declining at an alarming rate worldwide. The continuing destruction of habitat areas of these apes  in combination with increased commercial activities within these areas  have led scientists to suggest that the majority of great ape populations may be extinct in our lifetime.

Even if isolated populations were to survive, the long-term viability of great apes is in doubt due to their limited numbers and the fragmentation of their habitat.

The endangered great apes share their habitat with millions of people in West, Central and East Africa and in Southeast Asia. The majority of these people live below the poverty line. There is thus a  need to link the welfare of humans and wildlife as central to staging a fight for the survival of the apes.

In May 2001, in response to the current crisis, Dr. Klaus Toepfer, the Former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), launched GRASP - a new approach to save the great apes and their habitat. This approach brought conservation planning initiatives, technical and scientific support for the project to state governments to dovetail with  flagship field projects.

Thus GRASP has a unique role to complement existing great ape conservation efforts.   

In September 2002, joined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), GRASP was registered as a World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) Type II Partnership, a multi-sectoral international initiative.

The GRASP Partnership is a dynamic alliance bringing together governmental and intergovernmental, UN institutional, non-governmental, scientific and academic foundations, local community and private sector interests.

Since its inception, the activities of the GRASP Partnership have helped define what strategy GRASP might adopt to address the threats facing the great apes, given its unique position as a truly international alliance among a diversity of stakeholders.

National Great Ape Survival Plan (NGASP) workshops and support to other planning mechanisms have helped great ape range countries develop conservation strategies.

Information and awareness activities through such media as TV and newspapers articles, publications, documentary films and side events have raised the profile of the plight facing the great apes at the global level. UNEP, UNESCO and donor funding of non-governmental partner projects has involved local communities and achieved much in the field.

GRASP Patrons Jane Goodall, Russell Mittermeier, Toshisada Nishida, Richard Leakey and Richard Wrangham have provided their world-renowned expertise and reputation to bring further attention to the plight facing the great apes.

Source: Unep Grasp website

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