Once on the brink of extinction, the mountain gorilla population has been growing thanks to the work initiated by Dian Fossey in the 1960s. African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) President Robinson McIlvaine said that “There would be no mountain gorillas in the Virungas today … were it not for Dian Fossey’s tireless efforts over many years”.
In 2018 a survey of the Virunga mountain gorilla population found an increase from 480 to 604 over a five-year period. Thirty years ago, there were just 240 individuals left in the Virunga Mountains (with an unknown number in Bwindi). The overall total of mountain gorillas is now 1,063.
Virunga Mountains, Virunga also spelled Birunga, is a volcanic range north of Lake Kivu in east-central Africa, extending about 50 miles (80 km) along the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Today’s census results are a testament to the intensive on-the-ground conservation efforts by dedicated trackers, researchers and other team members, and cooperation across three governments.
Although The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) upgraded mountain gorillas’ endangered status from critically endangered to endangered, Dr Tara Stoinski president, CEO and chief scientific officer of the Fossey Fund says that the overall small numbers and other potential dangers such as disease, climate change and habitat encroachment mean that the survival of mountain gorillas is still at risk.
One organization that seeks to address some of the challenges faced by gorilla conservationist is Gorilla Guardians. This is a Non-Profit organization that aims at improving the lives of reformed poachers and communities around Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.
With access to livelihood support, communities and in particular poachers get to see the importance of conservation. The organization has been able to do this through giving poachers’ children to access education, support agriculture, access to clean water and health care.
Through their goats for gorilla project, visitors can donate $25-40, this buys a goat for a reformed poacher’s family. This provides start-up farming opportunities that increase a household’s food and income security.
Gorilla Guardians has also developed community-based tourism such as arts and crafts, basket weaving, and several other small scale community businesses. Reformed poachers and communities around the park can generate much needed income to provide for their families which gives them security for a better future.
Turning gorilla poachers into protectors has created opportunities for thousands of local villagers in Rwanda. This demonstrates the important role tourism is playing in the protection and conservation of gorillas. The gorilla story is, we believe, a shining example of sustainability through tourism.
Visitors to Rwanda are encouraged to visit the cultural village set up in support of the Gorilla Guardians.
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