Rwanda reaps big from hidden gem: The rising number of its gorillas

Saturday January 20 2018

Gorilla in Rwanda

One of the silver-backed gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park in Kinigi, Rwanda. Tourists pay US$1,500 to spend an hour with the animals. PHOTO | CORRESPONDENT 

By NG'ANG'A MBUGUA
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Flying into Rwanda at night, one would be hard-pressed to guess where the star-studded sky ends and where the lights in the hilly suburbs of the capital, Kigali, begin.

There is a sense in which the small country, despite its flaws, retains a magneticism that is at once as disarming as it is inviting.

Indeed, many Kenyans who visit Rwanda always remark about how clean the towns and residential neighbourhoods are. However, two things have gone unmentioned.

The first is that the streets of Rwanda are not just clean. They are actually cleaned regularly. And Rwandans do not wait for the local or national government to pick up the trash.

They clean the streets themselves. They also plant grass and flowers by the roadside.

Secondly, beyond all the spanking cleanliness of the streets even in rural areas, Rwanda has another hidden gem that many visitors are hardly aware of.

This secret treasure is to be found in the heart of the Volcanoes National Park in Kinigi.

FIVE VOLCANOES

The park is named after the five volcanoes that form the Virunga Massif, which stretches between Rwanda’s border with Uganda on the one side and the Democratic Republic of Congo on the other.

Of the five, Sabyinyo volcano is the most intriguing. Under the thick canopy of its indigenous forest are at least 20 families of mountain gorillas, each of which has about 18 members who live under the watchful eye of an alpha patriarch.

Here, mist covers the valleys in a cold embrace, shielding it from the amber glow of the early morning sun which, from a distance, looks like a gold coin in the sky.

According to Craig Sholley, a gorilla expert who is also the Senior Vice-President of the African Wildlife Foundation, twelve of the gorilla families are “habituated”.

This means that though they live in the wild, they are accustomed to receiving human visitors regularly.

The other eight families are primarily used for research.

GORILLAS

“The habituated gorillas are tracked for 24 hours,” says Kaddu Sebunya, the AWF President, who was in a team of eight that last week paid a visit to the primates that share 97 per cent of their genetic make-up with humans.

Tracking makes it easier for tourists to know exactly where to find every family. This is important because spending just an hour with the primates comes at a steep price.

The government of Rwanda charges every tourist $1,500 (Sh150,000) per visit.

Only eight tourists are allowed to visit each of the gorilla families at a time.  That means Rwanda makes about Sh14.4 million every morning from Mountain Gorilla tourism alone.

Ten per cent of the income is ploughed back to the local community to fund infrastructure projects and social services.

“Fourteen years ago, these roads had huge  potholes,” said Jean Marie, a tour guide, as he steered his green 4x4 towards the national park.

Though the roads are narrow, they are smooth no matter which way they lead.

DIG TRENCHES

In return for such benefits, communities are given the responsibility of ensuring that the gorillas are safe inside the park.

Every sector is allocated a part where villagers have to build a three-metre high wall along the park boundaries.

Currently, the wall stretches more than 74 kilometres and touches the Uganda and Congo borders.

Local communities also have to dig a trench to keep elephants, buffaloes and other animals from crossing into their farms. Villagers receive a stipend for the work.

Local men are also hired to work as porters, earning $10 (Sh1,000) a day.

Gorilla naming site in Kinigi, Rwanda.

Gorilla naming site in Kinigi, Rwanda. Tourist pay US$1500 to spend an hour with the gorillas. PHOTO | CORRESPONDENT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

“The gorillas and the people are better off,” said Craig of the partnership between the communities and the park management.

“The animals give up an hour of their day daily. As a result, they are the most protected of the endangered species.”

However, keeping the gorillas safe comes with its challenges.

CHALLENGES

When the Serena Group of Hotels bought 26.7 acres of land near the park to build a resort, the park management felt the change of user from farm to hotel would expose the primates to health and other social challenges posed by an increased human presence in what should have been a buffer zone between the park and the small-scale potato farms.

To solve this challenge, AWF bought the land from the hotel group and donated it to the national park to create more leg room for the growing gorilla population.

“Gorillas are highly susceptible to human diseases,” said Ms Kathleen Fiztgerald of AWF, explaining why the decision to convert the private land into a buffer zone for the primates was taken.

“These are global assets,” Mr Sebunya said during a recent handover ceremony where the chief executive officer of Rwanda Development Board, Ms Claire Akamanzi, received the deed transferring the land to the national park.

Former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa was among the guests at the handover ceremony.