4 September 2017

Rwanda: Why Conservation of Mountain Gorillas' Habitat is a Win-Win

Photo: Timothy Kisambira/New Times
Mountain gorillas feed inside Virunga National Park.
opinion

Last Friday, I was so excited to attend for the very first time, the annual gorillas naming ceremony, Kwita Izina that was held in Kinigi Sector, Musanze District.

It was the 13th edition of the ceremony, held on a sunny day. The mood was stunning and ecstatic.

19 baby gorillas were given different names by stakeholders in tourism, conservationists, and globally renowned celebrities among other guests that graced the colorful event.

Most of the names given to baby gorillas reflected a flurry of useful meanings specifically linked to Rwanda's culture, identity, home-grown initiatives, and other important aspects of our national values.

This event is typically held at Volcanoes National Park, the home to the rare mountain gorillas. The park lies in northwestern part of the country and borders Virunga National Park in the DRC and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda.

The Volcanoes National Park is widely known as a haven for the rare and endangered mountain gorilla. Today, it is estimated that 400 of these Mountain gorillas live within Rwandan territory.

These Gorillas have thicker fur, and more of it, compared to other great apes. The fur helps them to survive in a habitat where temperatures at times drop below zero degrees.

An interesting question is: why are mountain gorillas specially conserved?

First, to quote President Kagame; "Mountain gorillas are a part of our natural resources and our heritage. It is everyone's responsibility to conserve and protect biodiversity.

In protecting gorillas, we have everything to gain". This generally implies that the rates of loss of animal and plant species, arable land, water quality, tropical forests and cultural heritage are especially serious.

The obligation to conserve critically engendered mountain gorillas as well as other endangered animals springs from the principle of the inter-generational equity. In particular, it relates to equity between species which comes from respect resulting from the intrinsic value of nature regardless of its usefulness for the benefit of humans.

In this regard, equity between species is expressed in the preamble of the World Charter for Nature, which says "mankind is a part of nature and life depends on the uninterrupted functioning of natural systems, which ensure the supply of energy and nutrients."

In this perspective, all components of the environment have value, not only because of their usefulness to humans, but also as essential elements of an interdependent system that must be protected.

Peaceful co-existence of humans and gorillas is evident and productive. As a matter of fact, gorillas give birth every year and have significantly increased in numbers. But, if human activity turn out to be a detriment to gorillas habitat the chances of their survival would be extremely minimal.

Second, since the discovery of the mountain gorilla subspecies in 1902, its population has endured years of war, hunting, habitat destruction and disease - threats so severe that it was once thought the species might be extinct by the end of the twentieth century.

As a result, governments, including Rwanda, have put in place regulatory and policy frameworks to conserve the remaining populations of mountain gorillas. As of now, no more poaching and encroachment by humans.

The goal is to ensure the conservation of mountain gorillas and their regional afromontane forest habitat in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC. When mountain gorillas come into contact with humans they can be vulnerable to human diseases; which gorillas experience in more severe forms.

Mountain gorillas can even die from the common cold. However, studies have found that mountain gorillas that are regularly habituated with researchers and tourists have survived better than unvisited gorillas; they benefit from the greater protection available in those areas and from regular monitoring.

Increased survival is also largely due to better veterinary care of sick and injured gorillas. Therefore, conservation of mountain gorillas and their habitat is hugely important, as an integral part of environmental protection.

Of course, this calls for strengthening mechanisms for the respective countries to develop a regional approach to the conservation of a shared habitat. To improve the protection of mountain gorillas and their habitat, Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC should empower the relevant authorities to adopt a consistent, collaborative approach to conservation policy and legislation throughout the Albertine Rift and Great Rift Valley.

Third, international gorilla tourism generates revenues. The annual revenue earned directly from gorilla tourism is an important component of funding conservation and management of the parks, as well as local and national economies.

Just last year, as reiterated by CEO-RDB Clare Akamanzi, Rwanda earned more than $400 million from tourism and 5 per cent is invested in community development oriented projects through revenue sharing schemes.

Thus, gorilla tourism accounts for the majority of tangible benefits being derived from these animals. Tourism remains the biggest foreign exchange earner in Rwanda. It contributes about 30 percent of export goods and services in Rwanda.

It doesn't only benefit the government in terms of revenues, but also benefits local communities surrounding national parks by revenue-sharing. It obviously improves their livelihoods.

And, in turn, they're willing to cooperate with relevant authorities in preventing or combating any threats to the mountain gorillas habitat, as well as to other protected animals in the national parks.

The writer is an international law expert.

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