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Eugene Rutagarama tracking gorillas early morning to locate them before tourists visit them in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. This is what is done everyday to check on the health of each individual gorilla, but also to ensure that tourists visitin
Eugene Rutagarama tracking gorillas early morning to locate them before tourists visit them in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. This is what is done everyday to check on the health of each individual gorilla, but also to ensure that tourists visiting them are able to watch them. Photo: courtesy of Eugene Rutagarama.
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Rwanda's 'gorilla guardian' - Eugene Rutagarama

Veronique Mistiaen

7th May 2014

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda could easily have finished off the mountain gorillas of the Virunga mountains. The fact that they survived is in large part thanks to Eugene Rutagarama. He spoke with Veronique Mistiaen about the primates' future prospects ...

It is significant to notice that recent rebels in the Virunga area have refrained from hurting gorillas. On contrary they have asked park staff to cross lines from government side to maintain conservation activities in their side.

Rwandan biologist Eugene Rutagarama is widely credited for making sure that the victims of the genocide and subsequent wars didn't include the critically endangered mountain gorillas.

The gorillas have and are still contributing to the economic growth of the country - and this in turn is contributing to peace.

Today, nearly half of the world's 800-some remaining mountain gorillas live in the lush tropical forests covering the Virunga Mountains, the chain of volcanoes straddling Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rutagarama's conservation achievements won him the Goldman Environmental Prize - a kind of Nobel Prize for environmental activists - in 2001.

As people all over the world remember Rwanda's 1994 genocide - which was in full swing this month 20 years ago - I wanted to talk to Rutagarama about the remarkable recovery not only of the nation, but of the gorilla population, and his role in it.

The 1994 genocide - today and back then

"April is for me the month when I take time to think of the meaning of the genocide and its implication on the Rwandan society and on me in particular.

"How would I and my relatives be if the genocide didn't occur? What would have been the course of my life? Then I spend time thinking of each of the relatives and friends I lost during the genocide.

"Almost each Rwandan from all ethnic groups has lost dear relatives and friends or suffered some pain as result of the genocide. The majority of youth is now enjoying the country economic growth and opportunities.

"The coexistence is of course far from being ideal, but tremendous progresses have been made. But the roots of hatred will take long to be completely removed. In this respect, the political leadership matters a lot."

Peaceful giants, and murderous people

Rutagarama is now advisor to the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration - a wildlife conservation cooperation between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

He first looked into the liquid brown eyes of a large silverback during a trip to the Virunga National Park with his brother in 1990. The encounter was so moving and thrilling that he decided to dedicate his life to preserving these peaceful giants.

As he was leaving the park with his brother, another encounter was also going to mark his life. A group of youth blocked their way, sneering: "Have you seen these snakes?" Then they addressed their guide: "Hey guide! Why don't you bash these snakes on the head?"

Four years later, nearly one million "snakes" - or "cockroaches" as the Tutsis were also called - and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutus gone mad. Rutagarama's father, mother and three of his brothers were amongst the victims.

A life's mission: protecting the endangered gorillas

Protecting the gorillas in the aftermath of the genocide became the young biologist's single focus. Above all their habitats were at acute risk as the government tried to resettle more than two million people. And that effort also helped him go beyond hatred and despair. 

"After the genocide in 1994, the need for protecting gorillas was urgent. It was for me a priority to make sure that they were protected. I put in my focus and my full soul. There was no more space for anything else."

Gorilla conservation, in fact, played a role in healing not just Rutagarama, but the surviving wildlife staff, many of whose former colleagues had been killed or forced to flee. Indeed the gorillas have helped to bring healing to the whole devastated country.

"After a humanitarian disaster as horrific as the genocide, the common struggle to preserve something of shared value allowed people to transcend the conflict and create links."

Rebuilding a shattered country, piece by piece

"After the genocide, in 1994-1995, while most of governmental services were still slow to resume the work, at the wildlife service, we undertook efforts to open essential services such as law enforcement and gorilla tourism.

To do so, we called former park staff to report to work and we recruited new staff. These people were coming from all ethnic groups. We focused them on tasks to be carried out. At my best knowledge, these people formed a cohesive team that I enjoyed working with.

"Though we lost a high number of good guys during the militia insurgency in 1997-1999, the rest of the group has remained friends and are now economically prosperous."

Conservation strategies - local and international

Rutagarama, who had become the first African to head the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), set out to monitor the mountain gorillas, develop ecotourism and build relationship with the communities near the parks.

"I held countless meetings and discussions with military and civilian authorities and local communities around the forest, convincing them of the importance of the forest and highlighting their respective roles in its protection.

"I covered hundred hectares of forest with my team of rangers, hunting down illegal users and we collected thousands of snares that would have killed many wild animals."

Local communities had to be engaged

He also insisted that the very poor, displaced communities living near the parks be involved and benefited from gorilla conservation and tourism.

"The local community needs in our area are huge. Meeting some of their needs is a matter of equity and justice. Human populations living in the neighbourhood of gorillas are victim of animal crop raiding and damages.

"In addition, while incurring these damages, financial resources generated thanks to visits to 'their neighbour' gorillas go to the central government coffers. The 'retrocession' (give something back) from governments and the international community is therefore a kind of justice to these people for keeping this global heritage safe."

And against all odds, Rutagarama worked on fostering wildlife conservation cooperation among three fighting countries (DRC, Rwanda and Uganda), managing to convince all parties, even rebels, of the importance of preserving gorillas.

"I am quite proud that the wildlife conservation cooperation among the three countries has resisted several conflict outbreaks from the last two decades. I deplore, of course, the human losses of these conflicts and their impact on the ecosystems of this region."

The future: cautious optimism

As advisor to the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration, Rutagarama now advises governments and conservationists in all three countries on how to ensure the future of the parks, gorillas and local populations - with a strong focus on the community aspects.

"Despite the important threats that gorillas are facing, there is a strong awareness in the region about them. From grassroots' communities to decision makers, gorillas are now seen as an asset to have on your side.

"It is significant to notice that recent rebels in the Virunga area have refrained from hurting gorillas. On contrary they have asked park staff to cross lines from government side to maintain conservation activities in their side.

"My current concern is to strengthen and move forward to maturity this transboundary collaboration centered on wildlife conservation. 

"Even though this process encompasses human socio-development, my dream would be to have a kind of 'effet multiplicateur': to have similar examples of cooperation in other socio-economic areas for the benefit of our people across borders."

The threats are real - but so is the optimism

The gorilla population is now increasing, but there are still serious challenges ahead - including demographic pressure, new wars, oil exploration and climate change. Despite these, Rutagarama, is optimistic about the gorillas' future.

"From my exposure to communities across borders in this region, I sensed their goodwill to ignore borders when it comes to their aspirations and interests.

"And I think, although political players matter, committed people from the civil society can bring positive changes to our communities, whatever scale it may be. My long-term plan is to be part of these people."

 


 

Veronique Mistiaen is an award-winning journalist writing about the environment, international development, human rights and social issues. She blogs at The Right Human and she tweets at @VeroMistiaen.

Eugene Rutagarama is the author of Le Regard du Gorille, Fayard, 2013 - on sale at Amazon.fr.

Also on The Ecologist: more articles about Virunga.

 

 

 

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