The tragic civil war which broke out in Rwanda in April 1994 and led to the horrific slaughter of half a million innocent civilians has also had a negative impact on gorilla conservation in Rwanda and Zaire – home to half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.
Today, the future of gorilla conservation remains uncertain in the face of the unpredictable political situation.
“If development and environmental agencies weaken their support for the conservation of the Volcanoes National Park range, not only will the gorillas face a very bleak future, but the affected countries will risk losing a unique asset which has tremendous potential in terms of socio-economic development,” says Dr. Jean Pierre d’ Huart, WWF’s Regional Representative for Eastern Africa.
The international Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) jointly funded by the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), and the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society (FFPS), have spearheaded gorilla conservation in Rwanda, Zaire, and Uganda since 1977.
About 300 gorillas live within the spectacular Virunga mountains, which straddle all the three countries, and form part of the Volcano National Park in western Rwanda and the Virunga National Park in eastern Zaire – Africa’s oldest park and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Another 300 gorillas live 20 km to the north in the Mgahinga Gorilla and Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks in southwestern Uganda.
“Throughout the maelstrom that tore apart this corner of central Africa, the gorillas have survived. But they are still on the front line as their habitat is still mined in some places,” says Ros Aveling, gorilla expert and in charge of AWF’s programme development.
“Also, the tension caused by the refugee crisis could explode unless dramatic steps are taken to diffuse it.”
While the savage fighting in Rwanda had little impact on conservation activities in Uganda, Zaire’s Virunga National Park was affected by the dumping of human and medical waste from 850,000 refugees in and around the park, posing great risk of the spread of disease to humans and wildlife.
The refugees also rapidly removed timber from 100 square kilometres of the park for subsistence needs and for sale to neighbouring towns and relief organisations. Deforestation has been estimated at 300 hectares a day, and WWF is working with other organizations to develop strategies to lessen the refugees’ impact on the gorillas’ habitat.
WWF stepped up reforestation around Virunga National Park with the help of local partners. Youth groups are helping project staff to start up tree nurseries in surrounding communities. The demand for seedlings has been high and it was expected that hundreds of thousands of trees would be planted by last June. The major problem has been the shortage and poor quality of seed.
German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) provides the refugees with fuelwood from plantations outside the park and funds an energy-saving programme in the camps. Seven technical experts from Kenya work with individuals, hospitals, dispensaries, orphanages, and other refugee groups to promote fuel-wood saving techniques such as energy-saving stoves, made with help from local artisans.
GTZ together with Unesco, the World Food Programme, and the Institute Zairois pour la Conservation de la Nature (IZCN) are helping to intensify anti-poaching patrols in Virunga and Kahuzi Biega National Parks and provide game guards with rations.
The International Gorilla Conservation Project’s manager, Jose Kalpers, who left Rwanda at the outbreak of the war, returned two months later to help rehabilitate bombed out and ransacked park infrastructure. Kalpers is also overseeing a joint demining operation in parts of the Volcano National Park. At the time of writing this article, 78 anti-personnel and booby traps had been detected and made safe.
The Gorilla Conservation Project was spending a further $ 159,000.00 on game-guard salaries in Zaire and rehabilitating park infrastructure in Rwanda, while also trying to stimulate Gorilla tourism, Rwanda’s third most important foreign exchange earner.
According to Kalpers the Sabyinio gorilla group is visited almost every day, and the demining operation in the western sector of the park has opened up the Susa gorilla group for visits as well.
“There is widespread recognition that gorillas are an important and valuable resource,” says Ros Aveling of African Wildlife Foundation. “Efforts to protect them will continue.”