The Virunga massif, straddling Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the home to the fabled but endangered Mountain gorillas. It’s also a sanctuary for various species of wildlife and plants.
That is why the governments of the three countries have made concerted efforts towards conservation here, since Virunga is the Holy Grail of tourism industry in this region.
In Rwanda, a special ceremony is always preserved in September for the gorilla families. This is the renowned Kwita Izina ceremony, where baby gorillas are “baptized” with new names, borrowing from Rwanda tradition of naming new arrivals of babies.
The Kwita Izina ceremony is attended by the top echelons of Rwanda government, and private sector players and always conspicuously present is Rwanda leader President Paul Kagame. The presence of the president is always a clear vindication of Rwanda’s concerted efforts to ensure that these endangered primates are protected.
The Kwita Izina ceremony is carried out with conservation in mind. Names that are attributed to the baby gorillas play a critical role in the current programmes of monitoring every individual gorilla in not only their family but also their habitat in general. The event is a uniquely Rwanda event that was introduced in the year 2005 with the aim to create awareness on conservation efforts of these endangered primates.
The Rwanda government also initiated tourism revenue sharing where some percentage of the tourism dollar goes back to the local community to uplift local living standards.
Conservation efforts around the Virunga are not only the three governments’ responsibility. There are several Non-Governmental Organisations and private sector players that have pitched tent around the Virunga chains to ensure that the communities also actively take part in conservation.
Such organizations include Virunga Community Programs.
Working closely with the governments and the locals, these organizations have initiated different programs to make sure that human-animal conflict and poaching around the protected areas are limited. The programs include involving the community in education about conservation, facilitating income generating programs to uplift the livelihoods of the locals to convince them away from poaching, and developing local talents in various fields so that the youth exploit their natural talents and do not engage in illegal activities.
The locals are helped to sell their products to visiting tourists as souvenirs while the some of the tourists also have actively participated in community and social development in areas like health and education through payment of school fees for children coming from vulnerable families.
The Virunga Community Program has developed different programs to ensure conservation efforts around the virunga massif are realized. These include involving the local community in tree planting around the Volcanoes National Parks, facilitating development of talents in art and sports and helping the vulnerable women gain from tourism through selling traditional products like handicrafts.
Encroachment on gorilla habitat range and ecosystems primarily by humans in search of land for agriculture, the Virunga regions is surrounded by heavy population densities thus many people depend on natural resources such as water, forests and plant species. Most of these resources are found in the park thus Virunga Community Programs say it’s relevant to enfranchise communities neighboring the gorilla habitats in form of equal economic opportunities so as to reduce the strain put on gorilla habitats.
In Uganda, the ongoing census being carried out in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is also seen as significant effort towards conservation of the mountain gorillas. The park in Uganda is habitat to about half of the world’s remaining Mountain Gorillas. However, habitat loss, poaching, disease and civil unrest all remain major threats to gorilla populations. Consequently, accurate population numbers are crucial to protect these endangered species.
The population trend of these primates in the park show interesting figures. For instance between 1959 and 1960, there was a gorilla population of between 400 and 500. But this number reduced drastically to between 260 and 290 gorillas between 1971 and 1973. The number dwindled further to between 252 and 285 gorillas between 1976 and 1978.
A census carried out in 1981 showed there were between 242 and 266 gorillas. This is a period when Uganda was steeped in political chaos. But the 1986 census shows that the population gradually started increasing, with the number of between 252 and 285 recorded. 1989 census recorded 324 gorillas while 2003 census also saw the number increase to 380 gorillas, presenting a 17% increase since 1989.
The last count that was carried out back in the year 2010 showed there were about 480 mountain gorillas that were living in the park, showing a 26.3% increase in total population since 2003, which presented a 3.7% annual growth rate.
In the DRC, the killing of six rangers some two months ago sent shockwaves as far as conservation is concerned. The killing of wildlife protectors is not unprecedented. In December last year, poachers killed one lowland gorilla and five chimpanzees.
Even though the governments are making efforts to make sure rangers are protected, still they daily risk their lives to protect wildlife. Protecting the animals against poachers’ onslaught-where poachers are backed by organized crime syndicate needs highly trained and dedicated group of rangers. The rangers work in tough and dangerous conditions.
To be effective in their duties, they require top-quality modern equipment, resources and training. These are critical not only to their own safety but also to their ability to effectively offer protection to animals.
All in all, conservation initiatives by the governments, NGOs and private sector players are crucial in conservation around the Virunga. These efforts have made the numbers of the mountain gorillas and other species of wildlife to exponentially rise, while poaching has been drastically reduced. It’s hoped that with conservation efforts, there’s still a lot of heritage to look forward to in the future.