Rwanda is an East African landlocked country with few natural resource minerals and wildlife. Faced with a brutal genocide of 1994, Rwanda firmly resumed her economy in the aftermath. Tourism was one of the priority sectors that would help turn the negative image of the country in the international media and also foster economic development by creating jobs and bringing foreign exchange earnings.
Tourism in Rwanda relies much on wildlife especially mountain gorillas. Rwanda placed a lot of emphasis on establishing gorilla tourism under strict ecotourism, a strategy that would help conserve its wildlife mainly the highly rated mountain gorillas and also provide financial benefits to local communities.
Since the time of Dian Fossey who brought the plight of gorillas on the world scene, gorillas became very popular than other wildlife in Virunga and Rwanda in particular. This also kept Rwanda in the world travel media highlights as a peaceful and adventure tourist destination attracting more tourists who come for gorilla tracking.
With many travelers becoming environmental conscious, especially those who come to Rwanda for gorilla trekking, eco tourism can be understood as the travel by tourists to natural areas that play two vital roles; conserving the environment and sustaining the wellbeing of local people. Eco tourism also includes educative experience for both hosts and tourists who come to see mountain gorillas. Once tourists become responsible in their activities as well as hosts, there is low impact created on the environment which makes a destination more attractive giving tourists a quality experience.
With an estimated population of less than 900 individuals, mountain gorillas have become rare and critically endangered apes. Hence gorilla tracking remains a restricted tourist activity; few people get a chance to see gorillas in their natural habitat.
Therefore gorillas are the main attractions for tourists in Rwanda. Through gorilla tourism, gorilla tracking as one of the interesting tourist activity is the only way tourists get to see gorillas in their natural habitat. Tourists pay dollars after purchase of a gorilla permit; the money generated from gorilla tourism is channeled through funding conservation activities and developing economic sustainability of local communities living around the gorillas.
Tourism revenue sharing scheme as one of the efficient way to account for tourism revenues was initiated in 2005. 5% of the annual tourism park revenues (with much got from sell of gorilla permits) to the local communities living near the Volcanoes National Park. This scheme is meant to build up strong relationships with local communities since they are the key players in wildlife and biodiversity conservation. This is also the exact reason why they are the first beneficiaries of gorilla tourism revenues.
Mountain gorillas have helped much in development of local communities living, a number of diverse projects ranging from sustainable agriculture, clean water facilities, schools; health care centers to financial cooperatives have been established across Rwanda. This has uplifted livelihoods of people by improving their daily income through jobs created by tourism business ventures like hotels, porter services; tour guiding, food and beverages.
The well established road network provides quick accessibility of Volcanoes national park from Kigali city. This is the main comparative advantage Rwanda has over Uganda’s Bwindi impenetrable forest national park of which one must travel for 8 hours or more from the main capital Kampala.
Therefore conservation challenges mainly encroachment and poaching trends have significantly reduced as local people no longer illegally extract resources from the park creating a lasting harmony between gorillas and people.
How Rwanda is Helping Mountain Gorillas
Mountain gorillas were once nearly getting extinct due to human activities such as civil wars, poaching, infectious human diseases, encroachment and habitat loss across the virunga massifs. In 1994 during the Rwandan genocide, illegal extraction of resources such as fire wood, water and medicinal herbs from the forest by locals affected the gorilla habitat. Also the civil war in the neighboring DR Congo intensified poaching for bush meat and illegal trade of their skins and hides. Such havoc reduced gorilla numbers.
Building on Dian Fossey’s active conservation which literally meant anti-poaching campaigns in her attempt to save gorillas, Rwanda has increased security for gorillas with dedicated wildlife rangers who carry out anti-poaching activities such as regular monitoring of gorillas and enforcing strict laws. Once again gorilla population is increasing in Rwanda as well as in Uganda and DR Congo.
Though security was paramount to reduce threats to gorillas, it was not enough minus the support of local communities. The Rwandan government and other partner conservation organizations like the international gorilla conservation group set up community education programs to sensitize locals about the need to conserve gorilla habitats.
Gorilla veterinary doctors have been deployed not only in Rwanda but also in Uganda and DR Congo to treat sick or injured gorillas. All these were as a result of gorilla tourism revenues, thanks to conservation efforts, gorillas have been saved from extinction but still remain critically endangered. Gorilla population has increased by 20% from as low as 500 to 880 individuals across the virunga mountains region. However, in DRC, chaos and civil wars have continued to kill and threaten gorillas and the life of wildlife rangers.
With the increase in political stability and strict anti-poaching laws and conservation, Rwanda is perceived as a safe tourist destination and one of the remaining gorilla habitats. This has therefore led to an increase in gorilla safaris taking place in Rwanda likewise in Uganda and to a lesser extent in DRC hence improving the tourism industry through revenues earned.
Seeing Mountain Gorillas in the Wild
Tourists interested in seeing mountain gorillas, must first book a Rwandan gorilla permit by contacting a local tour operator or the Rwandan Development Board. With a permit, you are guaranteed to see gorillas once you are in Volcanoes National Park. The park has 10 habituated gorilla families each with unique individuals.
Gorilla trekking starts at Kinigi, the main visitor center in Volcanoes National Park. Guides and rangers usually brief and lead a group of 8 tourists at the start of the guided nature walk early in the morning. This means that you should have booked accommodation near Kinigi visitor center. Tourists are required to carry packed lunch, drinking water and also wear hiking boots and rain jackets.
Trails take you through magnificent scenery of plantations to the montane forests and bamboo where gorillas stay most of the time. Tourists are allowed to see gorillas for one hour, seeing a silverback, young gorillas and female adults feeding on bamboo and playing is a life time wildlife encounter. Volcanoes national park is also a home to buffalos, forest elephants, warthogs, bushbucks and golden monkeys which you might luckily see during a guided nature walk.
Most tourists who come for gorilla treks in Rwanda also go for other tourist activities such as volcano hiking, golden monkey tracking, birding and visiting the Dian Fossey tomb. These activities enable tourists to explore the Virunga volcanoes and its wildlife.