After a whirlwind week of meeting with Rwandan officials, business leaders, local journalists, activists and others in the capital city of Kigali, we took off for a few days to journey high up into the Birunga mountain range to the northern town of Kinigi, near the Congo and Uganda borders.
I’m traveling with a group of American journalists sponsored by the International Reporting Project. Our aim is to gain perspective on this country so many associate only with its genocidal past – but which many others today dub an “African success story.”
Rwanda is a stunningly beautiful country. There are many signs of economic progress, but it is still plagued by widespread poverty. Gorilla trekking is expensive and brings in a lot of tourism money. But how much of that is making its way to improving the lives of the average Rwandan?
After driving for hours from Kigali on some pretty rough roads (and some really good ones), we finally arrived at the Gorilla Mountain View Lodge. We all felt like we had reached a remote part of Africa.
Then I saw the photo above the reception desk of Bill and Melinda Gates posing with the lodge owners. Sheesh. I can’t seem to get away from those two Seattle folks. They’re everywhere.
The lodge has no web access and heats its rooms by a somewhat anemic and soggy wood fire. This is equatorial Africa, but at high elevations (7,000 feet or so) it can still get pretty cold at night. All around the tourist enclaves up here are farming communities, with wandering goats and cattle. Some still live by poaching in the national park, which poses a threat to Rwanda’s number one tourist attraction.
Tourism today represents a significant part of Rwanda’s economy and the mountain gorillas, made most famous by the late Dian “Gorillas in the Mist” Fossey, are the iconic centers of this universe.
More than 600,000 tourists visited last year, an official with the Rwanda Development Board told us, as compared to maybe 6,000 in 1995, the year after the genocide.
“Tourism has contributed to this community significantly,” said Prosper Uwingeli, chief warden of Volcanoes National Park. Uwingeli met with us in Kinigi along with staff at the Karisoke Research Center (the conservation organization started here by Fossey).
Rwanda’s tourism boom is one of its success stories, but the gorilla trekking business alone may be too fragile and limited to make a huge dent in reducing poverty throughout all the communities living around the national park. It has made a dent in Kinigi, where a dozen new hotels have sprung up in the last decade. But how many of these tourism dollars flow down to the poorest of the poor?
“We don’t really know,” said Felix Ndagijimana, deputy director at Karisoke. It is the very poor who poach in the park, Ndagijimana said, not for the gorillas but for small game — bushmeat — to supplement their meager diet. These critically endangered gorillas are injured by the snares and sometimes die.
Uwingeli said there is a revenue-sharing program at work in the area which plows some of the tourist dollars back into poor communities to build new homes, schools or install wells. Poachers who are caught are trained to work instead at conservation, preventing poaching by educating the community and actively discouraging snare placements.
But still, Uwingeli says: “We remove on average 120 snares per month.”
There are only about 480 mountain gorillas left in the Birunga mountains, and a total of perhaps 800 in all throughout this part of the Africa’s Great Lakes Region encompassing gorilla habitat in parts of Rwanda, Congo and Uganda. The Birunga population has slowly been growing, but the tension between conservation and economic development here remains acute.
Rwandan government officials legitimately want to boost tourism to provide even more money for reducing poverty in this area. And this can benefit the gorillas, by reducing the incentive for poaching — among other things. But how many more tourists can the gorillas tolerate?
As the video below from our group’s visit indicates, these gorillas are quite tolerant of properly guided gawkers. We were often just a foot or two away from them and they usually seemed indifferent to us:
But you also got the sense that it would take very little to fatally disrupt the well-being of these usually gentle giants. Gorilla populations are on a steep decline worldwide and only in Rwanda has the population grown, ever so slightly, over the years.
Researchers at Karisoke are using a variety of methods to study the gorillas, including analyzing their droppings for stress hormones or changes in diet — aimed at establishing a firm scientific basis for deciding how many tourists the gorillas can tolerate.
In addition, the researchers have started exploring how to more accurately determine the economic benefit of tourism to communities, especially to those living in extreme poverty.
Tourism has probably saved the mountain gorillas in this most densely populated of countries. It has clearly benefited many of those living in this region by boosting the local economy. But perhaps the most striking feature of this human-gorilla relationship is that it is so precarious.
No visit to Rwanda is complete without seeing the mountain gorillas. Here’s one who came to have a closer look at us.