Mountain gorillas are thriving in Rwanda, locals have to leave their homes because of them

Félicien Ntezimana weaves his way through vines, hagenias and ferns with a quiet hmm, hmmm. “This is how gorillas greet each other. We mimic that sound to communicate with them and calm them down,” a man who works as a guide in the National Volcanoes Park in northwest Rwanda told Le Mode newspaper. In his khaki uniform, he almost blends into the rainforest of the Virunga massif, the volcanic belt separating Rwanda, Congo and Uganda. Two Mexican couples walk behind him, holding their breath.

Suddenly the leaves rustle and a female gorilla appears busy eating the roots of a bush. Behind her emerges the huge gray back of the leader male of the group, who weighs about two hundred kilograms. He gently plucks leaves from the branch with his fingers and puts them in his mouth. Four young gorillas run around, intimidating each other by pounding their chests. Only the slow chewing of adults, the rustling of leaves and the clicking of camera shutters can be heard.

There are about a thousand individuals of these animals in the world and they are only found here, in Central Africa. Tourists have to pay fifteen hundred dollars (about 36 thousand crowns) for an hour of the opportunity to observe them. It’s cheaper in Congo and Uganda, but Rwanda has made watching “its” gorillas a luxury for the select few.

“Sometimes people come regardless of the price, even two days in a row, others want an individual program, which costs fifteen thousand dollars (about 364 thousand crowns),” says Ntezimana. Groups of visitors staying near the forest in luxury hotels are taken to the hills every morning to observe twenty gorilla families. Some want a thousand dollars a night, in a country where, according to the World Bank, forty percent of citizens live below the poverty line.

Dark War in the Jungle. Mountain gorillas are dying because of charcoal

The security director of the company in Mexico, José Carlos Mapelli, arrived with the newlyweds on their honeymoon. Rwanda is highly recommended in Mexico for this purpose. In 2019, before the epidemic caused by the spread of the coronavirus, 17,000 people observed gorillas in Rwanda, which earned the country approximately 107 million dollars (2.6 billion crowns). Almost a quarter of that was invested back into conservation.

In the 1960s, biologist Dian Fossey settled in the park. Gorillas were then in great danger from poachers – in the eighties only two hundred and fifty animals lived. In the last twenty years, governments and non-governmental organizations have managed to reverse the trend, mountain gorillas now number over a thousand and have been reclassified from critically endangered to endangered.

It is the result of consistent protection. Every individual is monitored by scientists and trackers, a veterinarian is called at the slightest sign of illness, and anti-poaching patrols patrol the park. “It works because gorillas are extraordinary animals. A tourist here not only pays fifteen hundred dollars for the opportunity to see them, but also to help finance the rescue of this species. Only those who participate in their protection have the right to see them,” says Veronica Vecelli, director of the Gorilla program founded by the Fossey Foundation.

Since 2005, the Rwandan government has been investing ten percent of the profits from gorilla sightings into the local community, which has resulted in seven hundred projects including new roads, schools and clinics. And it appears that this policy was perhaps all too successful. At the beginning of the new millennium, three gorilla families lived in the monitored area, today ten groups share the same territory. So one hundred and sixty square kilometers of the park will soon cease to be enough for them. Conflicts are already on the rise.

The photo that shocked the world in 2007: the silverback male Senkwekwe was shot and killed along with three other gorillas.

“They can kill babies, males can get injured in fights,” says Vecelli. Cub mortality tripled at the start of the millennium when the gorilla population began to increase. The government therefore wants to expand the park by 23 percent by 2028. It will come to $255 million (6.2 billion crowns) and yield 3,700 additional hectares for animals and plants, and another 6,000 hectares for a zone that will separate the park from people to prevent their clashes with wild animals. It will also mean building new hotels, which will give work to more Rwandans. They will no longer have to make a living from agriculture as before, says park director Prosper Uwingeli.

Agriculture is now the source of income for seventy percent of Rwanda’s citizens, but the government wants to employ more people in tourism and trade. But plans to expand the park are raising concerns in the country. Four thousand families will lose their land and will have to move to “model villages”. They will receive compensation for this, the amount of which has not yet been disclosed. This year’s first swallow is five hundred homes in the vicinity of the village of Bisate, where a five-star hotel has been located since 2017.

Since 2005, the Rwandan government has invested ten percent of the profits from gorilla sightings into the local community, resulting in 700 projects including new roads, schools and clinics.

Jean Bosco was born there and inherited a field to grow potatoes. Thanks to them, he earns 6,100 crowns a month. He regularly hears helicopters ferrying tourists to the hotel, which is one of the most luxurious in the country. The authorities informed him that in 2024 trees will be planted on the spot where his house now stands. “It’s hard to leave the place where you were born. Even if they give us money, we may not find equally good conditions elsewhere. The land here is extremely fertile, but the government has decided, so nothing can be done,” says the man.

The Rwandan government is used to relocating people with the help of the military, and the people know they don’t have much of a chance to fight back. Jean Bosco hopes for a satisfactory settlement. “We want them to give us enough to buy what we have now. And exactly,” he says.

The article is in Czech

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