Rwanda reaps rewards of wartime nature conservation
On the steep, misty slopes of the Sabinyo volcano, far above the green rectangles of sorghum fields that press against the Parc National des Volcans, a family of mountain gorillas is frolicking.Skip to next paragraph
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As the huge silverback yawns, a small group of camera-toting tourists – each of whom has paid Rwanda's park system $375 to see this scene – click away. "It's amazing!" one woman exclaims.
Conservationists say she is right – the scene is remarkable. But that's not just because it showcases a few of the world's 700 or so remaining mountain gorillas, or brings much-needed foreign currency to this corner of northwest Rwanda. It is amazing simply because it exists, they say.
Despite a decade of war and environmental devastation, Rwanda's mountain gorillas and their habitat have managed to survive. And conservationists are taking a closer look at the region, suggesting that in these wet, lush mountains, there is a lesson for the world about how an environment can withstand conflict.
"I think it's really important to highlight what happened there," says Judy Oglethorpe, the director of ecoregion support at the World Wildlife Fund. "We asked communities, 'Why did you look after the gorillas?' They said, 'Because we made money from gorilla conservation – and we believed peace would come again and we would benefit again.' "
During the 1990s, this tiny country in central Africa erupted into some of the worst ethnic conflict of the 20th century. The peak of the violence came between April and July 1994, when Hutu militias slaughtered an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and other Hutus labeled "moderate." But smaller numbers of killings continued through the end of the decade.
The environmental degradation was also huge. Rebels and government officials fought in the national parks, soldiers poached wildlife, and refugees swarmed into protected forests. But according to a WWF-funded report and conservationists on the ground, local officials and international aid workers tended to pay little attention – compared to the human trauma, conservation hardly seemed to matter.
The Parc National des Volcans (PNV) was different.
The PNV encompasses the Rwandan section of the Virunga Volcanoes, a looming mountain range in the border region where Rwanda, Congo, and Uganda meet. It is home to the mountain gorillas made famous by researcher Dian Fossey and the movie "Gorillas in the Mist."
This area saw intense fighting during the war. Soldiers cleared swaths of bamboo forest, and skirmishes were regular in the higher-altitude alpine forests. But despite the danger, a handful of NGOs continued to fund conservation projects and rangers continued to work. The International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP) says locals supported the efforts.
Today, while other parts of Rwanda and central Africa struggle with the long-term consequences of war's environmental devastation – food shortages, deforestation, and deteriorating water quality, to name a few – the economy in Rwanda's gorilla region is growing.
"We were able to build a program that continuously had some presence in the field, on the ground," explains Eugene Rutagarama, director of the IGCP. "We didn't really stop for a month. We have been there always, even during the conflict."
Mr. Rutagarama says two main factors helped the gorilla program survive. NGOs in the area were able to piece together private funding, which allowed some park operations to continue. And, he says, junior staff members kept working despite the danger, even when people such as himself had to flee the country.
The funding setup was crucial, he says, since the government and international organizations tend to eliminate conservation funds during conflict or put restrictions on how money is used. But the private funds were more flexible, allowing park officials to pay for a patrol whenever it seemed safe, or to shift gears and run an education program for a week. They could make those calls day by day.
They could also help pay the park's junior staff. Those rangers ended up running conservation efforts during the war when it became too dangerous for their bosses, who were targets of the violence because of their higher education levels.