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ENVIRONMENT-RWANDA: Park Fencing to Protect the Mountain Gorillas

Aimable Twahirwa

KIGALI, May 17 2006 (IPS) - Authorities in Rwanda have announced that the “Parc national des volcans” (National Volcano Park) will soon be fenced off to stem the killing of endangered mountain gorillas, and prevent further destruction of the park forest.

“We realised that there was no other way out of this problem. But, we’re confident that the awareness campaigns and other projects will enable communities to become conscious of the need to protect their ecological surroundings,” Rosette Rugamba, director of the Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks (l’Office rwandais du tourisme et des parcs nationaux, ORTPN), told IPS.

About 380 gorillas live in the reserve, some 120 kilometres north of the capital, Kigali. Despite several initiatives to save the animals, they are still being hunted by poor communities living adjacent to the forest – and also by poachers. The growing need for farm land and pasture often pushes local inhabitants to invade natural reserves and national parks.

“The exploitation of local resources is particularly evident in the destruction of the park by communities in search of water and pasture…Combined with poaching, (this) has caused a large part of the bamboo forest to be lost,” Rugamba explained.

Researchers estimate that there are only about 650 mountain gorillas remaining worldwide, of which some 500 live in three African national parks. These include the reserve in Rwanda, which encompasses part of the Virungas – a volcanic mountain range that stretches from the north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo to the south-west of Uganda. “Virunga” means volcano in Swahili.

The gorillas inhabit the slopes of the mountains, in a dense tropical forest made up in large part of bamboos.

“The mountain gorillas are a threatened species, and the (need to) increase…their numbers is of great importance for us and the rest of the world, especially as concerns the improvement of the local tourism sector’s image,” said Rugamba.

In April 2003, a project supported by Britain’s Department for International Development was launched to improve the Rwandan tourism sector in the period leading up to 2007, she noted.

The project intends – amongst other things – to promote tourism through the participation of the private sector and communities living alongside the park. A large, three-star hotel is being built in the centre of the park, and staff trained in hotel management and tourism.

Nonetheless, authorities felt that it was necessary to fence off the park in the near future to prevent further poaching of the gorillas – and additional destruction of the forest.

Venant Habyarimana – a potato grower in Musanze, a district in the north of the country located near the mountain range – does not agree with the decision.

“This is a way of looking for scapegoats. We have always lived peacefully with these animals. Why chase us from our land, while accusing us of these atrocious acts of poaching?” he asks.

But, conservationists say the greatest threat to the gorillas stems from the fact that the mountains are situated in a region that has fertile soil and a rainy climate, conditions that attract agricultural communities.

The rural population density in this volcanic region is amongst the highest in the world, and the demands of humans weigh heavily on the future of the forests and mountain gorillas, the scientists add.

In 1968, when the Rwandan government was faced with growing economic problems, more than a third of the park – the oldest one on the continent – was turned into agricultural land. A decade ago the area of the Parc des Volcans was 340 square kilometers; today it is 125 square kilometers, according to ORTPN.

In June 2005, a major campaign to collect funds for ensuring the conservation of gorillas was launched in the north of the country in the presence of Rwandan President Paul Kagamé – an event which also saw about 30 baby gorillas being named.

About 1.5 million dollars has been gathered to finance different conservation projects, including an initiative to prevent illegal activity leading to incursions into the park, such as deforestation, farming and cattle raising.

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