Rwanda’s mountain gorillas – A success story for conservation


(Posted 01st July 2013)

Happy Independence Day to all the people of Rwanda

When the name Rwanda comes up, at least in tourism circles, gorilla tracking comes to mind, first and foremost, as the Land of a Thousand Hills is indeed best known for offering well organized tours to see the prized animals in their natural habitat. The Rwanda Development Board’s Tourism and Conservation Department in fact acknowledges that inspite of concerted efforts over the past years to diversify the tourism products and introduce new attractions, inside and outside of the three national parks, gorilla tracking remains the highest profile activity for now, though birding and hiking, especially in Nyungwe Forest National Park, have started to make an impact in the statistics.

The Virunga massif, a transboundary ecosystem located in Rwanda, Uganda and neighbouring Congo DR, is home of – going by the latest figures available – some 480 mountain gorillas and has been described as the world’s ONLY stable great apes population. It is here, that on the Rwandan side some 11 habituated gorilla groups are available for tourism purposes, the 11th only named 10 days ago during the annual Kwita Izina naming ceremony, when a ‘breakaway group’ gained their own recognition, name and status. Additionally are there 10 other habituated group which are strictly reserved for research and monitoring, outpacing the other two gorilla range countries.

Two visits over the past month to Musanze, which has laid claim to the title ‘gorilla tracking capital of East Africa’, allowed to gain some further insight into the challenges and achievements of gorilla conservation, and it is clear that RDB and conservation NGO’s are working hand in hand towards a common goal, protecting the mountain gorillas while at the same time ensuring that tourism pays many of the bills this mammoth task incur month after month.

The Greater Virunga Transboundary Cooperation, in short GVTC, is a trilateral body, based in Kigali,, comprising RDB, UWA and ICCN, which coordinates conservation and management matters, shares research results and coordinates security measures put into place along the national frontiers between Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo DR.

There is GRASP, the Great Apes Survival Partnership, which falls under the UNESCO / UNDP framework of conservation partnerships under which all institutional bodies come together to share information and rally to preserve the ever shrinking habitat of great apes around the globe.

Gorilla Doctors bring vets together who volunteer their time to assist, largely free of cost for their professional services, to rush to the scene should the trackers, who spend much of the day with their charges up the volcanic mountains, call for medical support.

The International Gorilla Conservation Programme, in short IGCP, is a partnership devoted to the conservation of the mountain gorillas by the African Wildlife Foundation, Flora and Fauna International and the World Wide Fund for Nature, best known as WWF.

And then there is the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International , the local headquarters based in Musanze, which is arguably the highest profile organization of them all, the offices in white and green highly visible for everyone who drives through what used to be Ruhengeri. The fund emerged from Dian Fossey’s DIGIT Fund, renamed in Dian’s honour in 1992 as the DFGFI.

Dian, immortalized through the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, which portrayed her life’s work and dedication to the cause of protecting the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Congo, back then still known as Zaire, was killed on the 27th December 1985, but left behind a legacy which lives on and has grown from strength to strength. Controversial as she may have been in life, she was an outspoken opponent of using habituated gorillas for tourism purposes and had reported run ins’ with fellow researchers too, in death she became a uniting factor for gorilla conservation and her name, and that of the fund, continue to be magnets to raise money, material contributions and attention around the world. Today, the gorilla population, which was seriously endangered when Dian was still alive and working in the field, has significantly increased in size, to now around 480 overall, but with an estimated carrying capacity of around 800 gorillas, some in fact say up to 1.000 while others put the capacity of the Virunga massif to lesser numbers.

The fund operates the Karisoke Research Centre, headed by Felix Ndagijimanawith over 150 staff in Rwanda and across the border in the Congo DR, plus a number of volunteers and collaborating scientists. The main thrust of activities is, as previously mentioned, research and monitoring of the gorillas, conservation education among school children but also the adult population living around the national parks and last but not least community outreach programmes including health and education interventions.

For tourists coming to Musanze with spare time at hand, the centre in the heart of the town is open for visitors and staff are readily willing to give a tour of the facility, which contains well over 100 gorilla skeletons for study, as well as a bio research lab where hormonal traits are extracted for further study and DNA analysis. Anecdotal and material memories of Dian Fossey are also preserved here, including the desk on which she read and wrote.

Nearby, by the way, within a few steps from the Karisoke Research Centre offices, is the Hotel Muhabura, back in Dian’s days known as the Mimosa Hotel, where she regularly spent her time when she came down from the mountains, staying in Cottage 12, preserved to this day in her memory as a ‘live in museum’ as the hotel allows guests to stay there, at a slightly raised tariff, well worth paying. The present owner, Gaudence Rusingizandekwe, is a most charming host and ever willing to share her life story, how her late father bought the hotel from a Belgian owner, renamed it to Muhabura and how the hotel fared over the years, maintaining its unique character and style amid growing competition and yet pulling in the numbers, especially those tourists wishing to get a feel of the history of the area.

The volcanic mountains, often obscured by clouds but on clear days dominating the skyline in the distance, are ever present and it is for its ‘tenants’, the mountain gorillas, that up to 88 tourists a day – 8 are the permitted maximum for visiting the 11 habituated ‘tourism’ gorilla groups come to Musanze, and in fact to Rwanda. Golden monkeys too can be tracked on Mt. Sabinyo and hikes up the mountains are available through the tourism office in either Musanze or at the park headquarters in Kinigi, some 12 + kilometres outside the town. No entry into the park is permitted without being accompanied by a guide and rangers, as much a safety measure in case hikers encounter buffalos as for the protection of the flora and fauna.

Musanze’s wider area has however more to offer, as recent articles can testify to, the twin lakes of Burera and Ruhondo, the Musanze Caves now open for visitors and the Buhanga historic ‘eco-park’ where the kings of old were inducted into their duties before being fully installed at the King’s Palace in Nyanza, near Huye. And within an hour’s drive one can set eyes on Lake Kivu, home of such fine hotels like the Lake Kivu Serena or the Paradis Malohide lake side resort, where one can have a few days rest, lay lazily at the beach, go out fishing or just enjoy the vista, with Congo DR’s mountains visible across the lake.

In Rwanda, all tourism roads lead to Musanze and Kinigi, inevitably, but from there also on to the Nyungwe Forest National Park and the birding areas created on community land, along the swamps, valleys and patches of forest which can be found aplenty as one drives across the thousand and many many more hills.

Visit for details on the destination and for information on the work of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. Airlines flying to Kigali are, and from the wider East African region and the continent but also Brussels Airlines, KLM, Qatar Airways, South African Airways and Ethiopian Airlines from further abroad.

2 Responses

  1. It is good to remember the work of a great legend Dian Fossy for having made this for us unfortunately she is not here to see the yields of her efforts

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