Rwanda’s mountain gorillas – A success story for conservation

When the name Rwanda comes up, at least in tourism circles, gorilla tracking comes to mind, first and foremost, as the Land of a Thousand Hills is indeed best known for offering well organized tours to see the prized animals in their natural habitat. The Rwanda Development Board’s Tourism and Conservation Department in fact acknowledges that inspite of concerted efforts over the past years to diversify the tourism products and introduce new attractions, inside and outside of the three national parks, gorilla tracking remains the highest profile activity for now, though birding and hiking, especially in Nyungwe Forest National Park, have started to make an impact in the statistics.

The Virunga massif, a transboundary ecosystem located in Rwanda, Uganda and neighboring Congo DR, is home of – going by the latest figures available – some 480 mountain gorillas and has been described as the world’s only stable great apes population. It is here, that on the Rwandan side some 11 habituated gorilla groups are available for tourism purposes, the 11th only named 10 days ago during the annual Kwita Izina naming ceremony, when a ‘breakaway group’ gained their own recognition, name and status. Additionally are there 10 other habituated group which are strictly reserved for research and monitoring, outpacing the other two gorilla range countries.

Two visits over the past month to Musanze, which has laid claim to the title ‘gorilla tracking capital of East Africa’, allowed to gain some further insight into the challenges and achievements of gorilla conservation, and it is clear that RDB and conservation NGO’s are working hand in hand towards a common goal, protecting the mountain gorillas while at the same time ensuring that tourism pays many of the bills this mammoth task incur month after month. Take A Rwanda Gorilla Trekking Safari to have a view of how the Rwandan Have played a great Role in conserving the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda.

The Greater Virunga Transboundary Cooperation, in short GVTC, is a trilateral body, based in Kigali,, comprising RDB, UWA and ICCN, which coordinates conservation and management matters, shares research results and coordinates security measures put into place along the national frontiers between Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo DR.

There is GRASP, the Great Apes Survival Partnership, which falls under the UNESCO / UNDP framework of conservation partnerships under which all institutional bodies come together to share information and rally to preserve the ever shrinking habitat of great apes around the globe.

Gorilla Doctors bring vets together who volunteer their time to assist, largely free of cost for their professional services, to rush to the scene should the trackers, who spend much of the day with their charges up the volcanic mountains, call for medical support.

The International Gorilla Conservation Programme, in short IGCP, is a partnership devoted to the conservation of the mountain gorillas by the African Wildlife Foundation, Flora and Fauna International and the World Wide Fund for Nature, best known as WWF.

And then there is the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International , the local headquarters based in Musanze, which is arguably the highest profile organization of them all, the offices in white and green highly visible for everyone who drives through what used to be Ruhengeri. The fund emerged from Dian Fossey’s DIGIT Fund, renamed in Dian’s honour in 1992 as the DFGFI.

Dian, immortalized through the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, which portrayed her life’s work and dedication to the cause of protecting the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Congo, back then still known as Zaire, was killed on the 27th December 1985, but left behind a legacy which lives on and has grown from strength to strength. Controversial as she may have been in life, she was an outspoken opponent of using habituated gorillas for tourism purposes and had reported run ins’ with fellow researchers too, in death she became a uniting factor for gorilla conservation and her name, and that of the fund, continue to be magnets to raise money, material contributions and attention around the world. Today, the gorilla population, which was seriously endangered when Dian was still alive and working in the field, has significantly increased in size, to now around 480 overall, but with an estimated carrying capacity of around 800 gorillas, some in fact say up to 1.000 while others put the capacity of the Virunga massif to lesser numbers.

The fund operates the Karisoke Research Centre, headed by Felix Ndagijimana with over 150 staff in Rwanda and across the border in the Congo DR, plus a number of volunteers and collaborating scientists. The main thrust of activities is, as previously mentioned, research and monitoring of the gorillas, conservation education among school children but also the adult population living around the national parks and last but not least community outreach programmes including health and education interventions.