A conservation triumph : the mountain gorillas of Rwanda

by Eugene Rutagarama

Eugene Rutagarama's Story

Eugene Rutagarama was the 2001 winner of the prestigious Goldman Prize for Conservation for his conservation work with the mountain gorillas.

Kuryama, a mountain gorilla. Picture courtesy of the Dian Fossey gorilla foundation.The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is one of the two most endangered apes in the world (with the Cross River Gorilla, Gorilla gorilla diehli). There are only approximately 655 mountain gorillas alive today, and all of them are found in the wild. They only exist in two small, protected afromontane forest patches in northwest Rwanda, southwest Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The two forest patches in which mountain gorillas are found effectively divide the 655 into two distinct populations. One population, in Uganda, is found in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP), covering about 330 km2. The other population inhabits the Virunga Volcano Region, which sits across the international borders of Rwanda, Uganda and DRC. The Virunga Volcano Region (VVR) is ecologically homogenous, but separated into three national parks, in three countries: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, Volcano National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, covering an approximate total area of 300 km2 .

The mountain gorillas live in stable family groups with a dominant silverback male, his harem of females, and their offspring. The silverback male is usually the father of the offspring, although the younger males will take an opportunity to mate with a female if the silverback is not looking. They are not ferocious creatures but are, on the contrary, very peaceful. They only become aggressive if one of their group is perceived to be threatened. 

The threats to the mountain gorillas and their habitat are many. Poaching, pressure on the land for agriculture, unsustainable harvesting of wood for fuel, construction and other human activities all threaten the habitat of the gorillas. Furthermore, humans are potentially a source of disease that, once transmitted to gorillas, could devastate the population. 

During the last 10 years, the gorilla habitat has been endangered from a different quarter, it has been the fighting ground for official and non-official armed groups: government security forces, rebels and militia.

The Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) and the former Rwandan government forces were fighting in the Virunga Volcano Region(VVR) during the years 1990-1993. One gorilla was killed during those years in the Volcano National Park. After the war and genocide, the many landmines in the park posed a serious threat to the gorillas. The International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) required the technical support of RPA to demine the park.

The refugees fleeing Rwanda were settled near the Virunga national Park in DRC where about 10,500 hectares of park were destroyed and four gorillas killed in August 1995. From 1997 to 1999, the ex-Rwandan army and the extremist militia regrouped, intent on recapturing control of Northwest of Rwanda. The insurgency which followed in the region forced more than 50 % of the population of the Ruhengeri district to spend several months in the VVR, a move which brought waste to the VVR, the human faeces being a source of contamination and disease to the gorillas. In1999, in BINP (Uganda), the same Rwandan militia killed 8 tourists. Fifteen gorillas were killed in the Great Lakes Conflict.

Eugene Rutagarama became involved in the conservation of gorillas in 1990 as the counterpart of the Director of Karisoke Research Centre in Volcano National Park. The Karisoke Research Centre (KRC) was founded by the late American athropologist Dian Fossey in 1968 who was killed in 1985. The centre is now run by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Funds, a United States NGO. While Eugene was making an ecological study of the regeneration of bambous and Hagenia, two very common trees in the Volcano National Park, the Rwandese Patriotic Front, a rebel political movement of Rwandese diaspora attacked Rwanda in October 1990 forcing him to abandon his research, the park and his country for an exile of 3 years. 

Eugene Rutagarama returned to Rwanda after the genocide, with a mission to protect and conserve the mountain gorilla. In an unstable country and in the face of many dangers, this is his story of conservation.

After the war and genocide in 1994, I returned to Rwanda as Deputy Director of the Rwandan wildlife service, Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN). My mission was to rehabilitate the national park system. This was a difficult task as the ORTPN had lost most of its staff during the war and genocide. Some of them were killed and others had fled their home to the Democratic Republic of Congo. While the new govenment was struggling to settle hundreds of thousands of people from the Rwandan diaspora in a country already over-populated, we had to ensure that the parks remained. The first and delicate task was to convince and inform people and officials on the need to conserve parks. This proved to be a delicate task. At this time the former government of the killed Habyarimana was denying the Rwandan diaspora the right to return to their country arguing that Rwanda, being small and already over-populated, had no space for them. Knowing that more than 10% of their country was gazetted for national parks or natural forest reserves, sent a strong message to the refugees that the former Rwandan government had chosen animals instead of its people. In 1994, for people who had spent the past 30 years mostly in refugee camps without citizen rights, returning to their country was deep-set in their minds and hearts. As the international Community was reluctant to come in support of the new government after the genocide, it had no alternatives to the parks to propose for settlement of hundreds of thousands of people. Despite the weakness of our position in that context, the parks remained firm, expounding ecological and economic arguments to the new government to conserve the protected areas, showing them the risks of losing the parks. In our informal campaign, we targeted the government officials and soldiers on the field.  For the government officials, we chose to be proactive and participated in the many meetings organised for settlement of repatriated refugees. We also organised training sessions for soldiers in Ruhengeri, the district where the headquarters of the Volcano National Park is located. Because of this, on at least four occasions, we were able to hold back invasion of Volcano National Park, the gorilla habitat in Rwanda. The ORTPN, in collaboration with NGOs, set up and implemented an emergency plan for the rehabilitation of the entire wildlife service institution, including the Volcano National Park. That emergency plan gave a frame for ORTPN to recruit and train new staff.  The International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) is a programme formed by 3 international NGOs, African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). I joined the IGCP as its Programme Officer in Rwanda in 1997, the second year of insurgency in Northwest Rwanda. It was at this time that the Volcano National Park was invaded by the local population who had been forced to join the hutu extremist militia. The road from Kigali to the 2 main cities in the Northwest, Ruhengeri and Gisenyi was dangerous. The militia used to ambush in the road and were selecting and killing certain people. It was very risky to drive on that road. Unless we took the decision to abdicate our responsibility to protect the gorillas and the park, we had no other choice than to afford the risks braving sometimes the security rules of our own organisations. Even if the gorilla visits were stopped for security raison, we had to use all opportunities available to us to monitor the population. The relationship built with the government army, the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) during the years 1994-1995 was very helpful. We were able to convince the RPA to include park staff in their patrol teams. The collaboration between our staff and the government army was at some points risky. Park staff were targeted by the extremist militia who killed some of our valued guides and rangers, while some members of the local staff themselves were involved in militia activities. In the face of this complex situation, we had to be present on field and use our position and relationship to protect the staff against unfair suspicions, to maintain their moral, to give them professional guidelines, to provide them with financial and logistic support and to ensure a positive collaboration with the RPA for the benefit of gorilla conservation. When we started the collaboration, the RPA local leaders were planning the patrols but in the long run, park officials were planning the patrols according to our monitoring needs with the RPA providing valuable security manpower. It would seem to some that this work was more political than technical but in the security crisis we faced, the boundary between political and technical was not clear! Anyway, during more than 2 dangerous years, we were able to maintain a useful level of monitoring and protection of the habituated gorilla groups. In 1999, the RPA was able to stop all the extremist militia activities and to bring most of the local population home. We took advantage of the situation to organise the cleaning of the Volcano National Park to avoid gorilla contamination. Thanks to the local population who had lived in the park, we removed and tons of rubbish like domestic utensils and clothes, properly destroying hundreds of hazardous toilets. In the beginning of this year 2001, after 2 years of relative security in the VVR, International Gorilla Conservation Programme has made a press release on the increase in the number of gorillas in the VVR. Did we contribute to this increase? Yes. Right now we are are unsure about the numbers. A new problem is being faced by park staff. In the first week of June 2001, the militia killed a gorilla and ate it. It was a solitary silver back and the park staff located the remnants of the animal, with the distinctive silver hair. This brings a new threat because up to date, eating gorillas was not culturally acceptable in the region around the mountain gorilla habitat. The militia explained that they killed the gorilla as a last resort to find food. Conservation in Africa and especially during a crisis period is very challenging. It is important to be committed and to face to the situation with a big picture of conservation, a picture which reconciles the need of natural resources conservation with the human concerns (staff and local community) and a good but non- compromising understanding with the political leaders. 

African leaders have to face a number of complex problems: security, education, diseases, epidemic, famine… Sometimes, there is no way to prioritise the solutions because most of the problems need immediate solutions while the means for those solutions are not available or rare. Under the population pressure for their solutions, the conservation and environment concerns are most often forgotten or their solutions postponed by the political leaders. However, the impact of environmental disasters are often irreversible and African leaders have to be aware of that. In Rwanda for example in 1994-1995, the squatters were settled in the Gishwati natural forest which was completely destroyed. Last year, the erosion destroyed houses and crops and killed some people. After those losses, the government was forced to remove some squatters and to find another site for their settlement. The same situation could happen in any country in Africa where these problems are rampant. Nevertheless, the parks and natural forests, once used sustainably, could provide alternative economic income for the development of the country. For a small and populated country such as Rwanda, the parks and natural forests are a valuable commodity for tourism. Before 1990, tourism was ranked third in providing the country with foreign currency, a little bit behind coffee and tea. Most of this tourism income was generated by the Volcano National Park and its gorillas. The money from gorilla tourism is used by ORTPN to pay salaries and provide material and equipment to the staff working in all the protected areas of Rwanda. During the years of security crisis in Northwest in 1997-1999, the gorilla tourism in Rwanda was stopped. From 1999, the gorilla visits have resumed but the number of tourists has been too low to provide enough funds for ORTPN to fulfill its mission. However, the support of International Gorilla Conservation Programme has increased, covering many needs in the Volcano National Park management. The IGCP has worked in this part of Africa for the past ten years trying to ensure that the mountain gorilla survive in their habitat shared by the 3 countries, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. To achieve that goal, IGCP works closely with the Protected Area Authorities through the 4 following strategic objectives :  * Effective and sustainable management of regional forests assured * Collaborative regional conservation of the mountain gorillas and afromontane forests in operation * Widespread support for conservation of mountain gorillas and regional afromontane foresrts amonmg interst groups and the general public * Compatible policy and legislation supportive of conservation of mountain gorillas and regional afromontane forests in force in each country Since January 2000, Eugene Rutagarama is the programme Manager of the IGCP. With Dr Annette Lanjouw, the IGCP Director, they supervise the activities run by IGCP Programme Officers based in the 3 countries of mountain gorillas habitat. 

July 2001