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The Conservationist Putting an End to Mountain Gorilla Poaching

Conservationist Edwin Sabuhoro is helping to save Rwanda’s endangered mountain gorillas by reforming the poachers of Volcanoes National Park.

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Bordering Uganda and Congo, Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is a vast expanse of lush rainforest that along with its neighbours is home to the world’s remaining wild mountain gorillas, making the protection of this endangered species of great importance here.

Rwandan conservationist Edwin Sabuhoro has been at the forefront of conserving the species. “The park is a special place and this is the only chance we have to protect the endangered mountain gorillas,” he explains.

While working as a warden in 2004, Edwin volunteered to infiltrate the gorilla poachers by posing as a potential buyer. The plan was a success and the poachers were subsequently imprisoned. However, when Edwin visited the poachers to hear their side of the story, he realised that they’d been poaching out of necessity to provide for their families. Knowing that there needed to be a greater solution, he used his savings to buy land for the families to work on and seeds for them to plant. As they farmed the land, they began to sell their produce and this became their living. As Edwin saw tourists come to the national park to see the gorillas, he decided to build a cultural village where the former poachers could work.

“They’re able to build small-scale businesses to bring food into their houses, send their children to school and improve their health care.”

“Over 30 people are paid to work at the cultural village and we generate income that goes to the rest of the community,” Edwin enthuses. “And they are able to get money outside the park by making crafts, which is an incentive to conserving it. It’s changed from ‘that’ park to ‘our’ park. This is very important in conservation, so the community is running the resource, owning and protecting it.”

“They make T-shirts and walking sticks, bringing in an air of entrepreneurship that has spread around the park. They’re able to build small-scale businesses to bring food into their houses, send their children to school and improve their health care. We’re now seeing them protecting the park and educating the wider community about its importance because they see that tourism, as much as it’s generating revenue for the government, is also generating revenue for the community. The whole community changes as they benefit directly from tourism.”

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One project, Goats for Gorillas, is based on the idea that each tourist who visits gives a goat to a former poacher’s family. “Now, 10,000 goats have been distributed,” Edwin says. “Which shows the community that the tourists want to be able to see the gorillas, that they want their children and grandchildren to be able to see the gorillas, and that they want to give a token of appreciation so the community can continue to protect the resource they live next to.”

These projects have been a great conservation success. “There’s been a reduction of over 45-percent in poaching activities,” Edwin explains. “Community members are now going out to find poachers they know and trying to educate them to stop.”

“We still have issues with poachers. The magnitude has been reduced but there’s a lot of money involved, so it’s still a challenge. However the projects we are doing are changing the behaviour of the communities.”

“Every year we have a gorilla naming ceremony and we now have 10 to 20 babies each year, which is a huge increase in the population of mountain gorillas.”

“We’ve also seen an increase in the number of gorillas in the park,” he adds. “Every year we have a gorilla naming ceremony and we now have 10 to 20 babies each year, which is a huge increase in the population of mountain gorillas.”

Edwin is now planning to implement these projects in other countries with poaching issues. “We want to have the same success we’ve achieved in Rwanda over in Congo and Uganda. We need that collaboration to protect these animals because the poachers don’t have any borders. Once we are able to extend this to the other countries, it will be a success for the national park.”

“We then need to take this to other communities in Africa where they have rhino and elephant poaching issues, with the idea that if we can get the poachers there to benefit from tourism, they will see it as their resource and play a part in protecting it, reducing poaching dramatically.” Edwin hopes to be able to implement these projects in other communities across Africa in 2017.

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