Turning Poachers into Conservationists in Rwanda

Molly Feltner is traveling through Africa, and shares how one group found a sustainable solution to help the impoverished residents who live alongside Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

In Rwanda, conservationists have discovered that you can’t protect species like mountain gorillas without also looking after the people who live around their habitat. And in the area around the gorillas’ home, Volcanoes National Park, where there are nearly 600 people per square kilometer, the potential for human-wildlife conflict is particularly great. I learned about challenges and some of the possible solutions from former Volcanoes National Park Tourism Warden, Edwin Sabuhoro, whom I met while traveling in Rwanda. As it turns out, cultural tourism is a big part of the answer.

In 2004, Sabuhoro rescued a baby mountain gorilla from poachers who had killed several adult gorillas and where attempting to sell the baby on the black market. The baby survived but the two young poachers received life sentences in prison for their crime. After their conviction, Sabuhoro visited with the poachers’ parents to find out why they did it. One of the boy’s father said “If you were starving and couldn’t feed your family, wouldn’t you do something desperate to survive?”

Sabuhoro did further investigation into the lives of the nearly 500,000 poverty-stricken people who live around the park and found that the residents suffered as a result of their proximity to it–animals like Cape buffalo and elephants ate their crops and trampled their dwellings, and access to fresh water, firewood, and other resources was limited because it was illegal to harvest them from the park. The locals resented the park, and saw little reason to conserve it, so wildlife poaching and illegal harvesting of trees and other plants was rife.

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“I realized that if people’s basic needs were not being met–if they couldn’t feed their families or pay for health care and school fees–the mountain gorillas and the park would disappear,” says Edwin.

In 2006, Sabuhoro decided he would help address these needs by opening a tour company, Rwanda Eco-Tours, which would share its profits with the locals so that communities could fund agricultural projects and other initiatives that would allow them to improve their lives. He also decided to open Iby’iwacu Cultural Village, an educational tourist attraction that would employ former poachers as cultural interpreters and performers of traditional Rwandan dance and music.

Today Iby’iwacu employs nearly 1,000 former poachers and other locals who now receive tangible benefits from the national park. When gorilla trekkers and other tourists stop by for a visit and pay the $20 admission fee, 40 percent goes directly to the employees and 60 percent goes into a general community fund. I visited last week and was impressed with what I saw. I met Barora Leomoloy, a Batwa Pygmy who confessed to having poached some 200 animals from the park before being employed by the village, and he taught me how to shoot a homemade bow and arrow and how to throw a spear. I watched young men with spears and long blond headdressese perform spectacular Intore dancing, which in the past was used to entertain kings. All had been former poachers, but were now able to live well off their income from dancing and were proud to be able to show off the traditions of their ancestors. The village also showcased drummers and other musicians, a traditional healer, a blacksmith, and women who demonstrated weaving and sorghum grinding.

All spoke of how their lives had improved since joining in Sabuhoro’s tourism initiatives and how they now understood the importance of protecting “their park.”

Since 2006, the park has seen a 40 percent decrease in poaching and many of locals have seen their lives improve greatly, although Sabuhoro admits, there are still many problems to be addressed. “The challenge will always be there,” he says, “but I think if we can empower the communities and inspire the younger generation, we will have come a long way.”

Photos: Molly Feltner