Mountain gorillas are a rare type of species in Rwanda which are impossible to see in zoos. These sedentary creatures are too attached to their volcanoes, mountains and the morning mist of East Africa.
If you try to move these precious animals to zoos or parks they have a high risk of death. This is the way it should be to keep animals out of prisons (zoos) which are found all over Europe and the entire world.
Rwanda went through a horrific human genocide in 1994 which slaughtered thousands of Tutsi, Twa and moderate Hutu people. It was difficult to create an effective environmental policy to protect the gorillas during these tough times. Priorities were often elsewhere.
It was even more difficult to ask these countries to develop strong ecological policies when for years Europe gorged on its wealth.
Yet, despite these challenges, I was impressed to find that throughout my journey to Rwanda there was a massive commitment and willingness by the Rwandan government to change things for the better.
There are many Rwandan women in charge of some important positions in the country which might help explain the progress too.
First Stop: The Beautiful Akagera National Park
A huge number of antelopes and elephants have also disappeared from the park. Villages inside the park hunt for bush meat to eat and skins to sell.
Today, the park has reintroduced lions from South Africa and black rhinos from four European zoos. This has helped to recreate an ecosystem which once thrived and to gradually bring back tourists to the national park.
Every day a team of 82 rangers and veterinarians ensure the health of the new animal park. They observe, protect and study the animals who wear radio collars around their necks so the rangers can track them effectively.
Only the rangers have the rights to the information which is collected from the species. This is a great misfortune for photographers (like myself) who after three days of roaming the park can’t find either lions or rhinos. This is the challenge of a safari after all!
Inside the park, you can find little lodges. A handful of infrastructure welcomes visitors by offering safaris in the morning, afternoon and evening. In these lodges there are no plastic bags and solar panels are installed on the roof for energy.
There are also a limited number of tents which avoids repeating the mistakes of Kenya and Tanzania where 25 cars surround a lion.
In addition, all tourism-related benefits go directly to the people of the villages in order for them to be aware of the importance of tourism as a driver of development for the Akagera region.
Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda at Volcanoes Park
I walked for hours in the jungle of Volcanoes National Park to finally meet two mountain gorilla families in two days. It’s difficult to explain in words what one feels being in front of these animals. They are the kings of their mountains. So imperturbable and proud.
For ordinary tourists, the price to observe mountain gorillas is $1,500. A fortune, right? Yes, it’s not exactly cheap. But let me tell you a little bit about what this cost involves. When you go into the jungle you are accompanied by a ranger and trackers.
In the jungle, other trackers are already there on site and have searched for the gorillas in the early hours of the morning. These trackers/patrollers are armed with Kalashnikovs and are former poachers. They are the official bodyguards of the gorillas.
The government offers them a fixed salary, the opportunity to work within the law and preserve their environmental heritage. After the time spent with the gorillas, trackers remain with the family. They lurk in the jungle, watching the surroundings. They flush out and destroy all traps.
Money from the entry permit is also redistributed to people close to the jungle. This gives them the realisation of the economic power of their gorillas and why they should work hard to protect their natural habitats.
For your information, at the time of Dian Fossey over 200 gorillas were killed within 15 years. Fossey was an American primatologist and conservationist who worked with the gorillas from 1966-1985 and strongly opposed wildlife tourism. She didn’t want tourists near “her” gorillas.
In the end, the poaching resolutions were made through dialogue, understanding of issues from local stakeholders and excellent knowledge of the species concerned.
Chimpanzees and Colobus of Nyungwe Forest
After three hours of walking, I found them. They offered me an unbelievable scene of shade from the light and deafening cries. Farmers close to the forest also gain from the income the park generates.
Eco-lodges are installed here and there are many beautiful forests. Like Akagera National Park, the Rwandan Tourism Office also builds infrastructure to adapt to the wooden landscape of the area. They also ban plastic and use solar panels for energy.
The results are that birds now thrive in Nyungwe – including the magnificent Turaco bird which unfortunately I did not find. There are 14 species of primates which are visible (the largest concentration in Africa) and populations of chimpanzees and colobus have increased.
A new park will soon open to tourists where a colony of chimpanzees was recently discovered. These chimpanzees were previously thought to be missing from this region of Rwanda. Great results all round!
Education on the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda
For animal welfare to have a successful future it must go through the education system of schools. After my three expeditions to Rwanda, I was fortunate enough to visit the Ahazaza School to talk to children about what I had experienced.
I talked about how the endangered animals are being preserved thanks to tourism and the awareness by everyday Rwandans. I often talk at conferences in France about the importance of preserving animal species around the world.
At the Ahazaza School, I really believed that these kids were the future guardians of tomorrow’s environment. In front of me were future rangers, guides, veterinarians, managers, future ministers of the environment and tourism, and who knows maybe even the next president of Rwanda!
I showed them pictures and videos from my travels in Rwanda. They were entertained and loved seeing the beauty of their country.
Because yes, beyond its unique wildlife – Rwanda is “The Land of a Thousand Hills”. A welcoming country with an immense wealth of natural beauty in its jungles, valleys, rice fields, tea plantations and volcanoes.
Hatred and genocide has given way to an immeasurable love for nature, wildlife, fauna and flora. “Gorillas are our brothers” said Patience – one of the awesome tour guides I met in Rwanda. How awesome is that?!
Thanks for reading my article on the amazing mountain gorillas of Rwanda. I hope it has inspired you to visit this beautiful country one day!