Having just celebrated the 14th edition of the Kwita Izina, Rwanda's position at the head of Africa's conservation efforts is reinforced. In the wake of the ceremony, the Campaign for Nature speaks to Belise Kariza, Chief Tourism Officer at the Rwanda Development Board to learn more about the steps Rwanda has taken to achieve their remarkable success and what the rest of Africa can learn from their efforts.
CFN: You have recently hosted the 14 th Annual Kwita Izina Ceremony, can you give us a brief background on the ceremony and what it is for?
BK: The Kwita Izina Ceremony is a unique flagship event for Rwanda celebrating the outstanding successes we have made in the conservation. It is always and exciting week of events bringing together the leading global authorities on conservation and nature enthusiasts from around the world. KwitaIzina is based on the time-honored tradition in which Rwandan families held a ceremony to name newborn babies. This tradition was adapted three decades ago by the national park staff and our conservation partners, to give names to newborn baby gorillas enabling staff to monitor each mountain gorilla in its family group and habitat.
The Kwita Izina not only allows us to celebrate newly born mountain gorillas, but also raises awareness as to the importance of the protection of the species and their habitat. We have had remarkable success in the conservation of our protected areas and the bio-diversity within these areas, particularly with the endangered Mountain Gorilla. To date 281 mountain gorilla babies have been named since 2005.
CFN: How important are the Gorillas and their habitat to Rwanda?
BK: Mountain Gorilla trekking is Rwanda's flagship and Iconic attraction. In 2017, it generated around 70 Million USD for the Rwandan economy, which equates to 19% of total tourism revenues in the country. This statistic reinforces just how economically valuable to African countries protecting nature is.
The continued existence of almost a third of the world's Mountain Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, is an unequalled indicator of how Rwanda is committed to protecting its natural biodiversity. The recently released results of the 2016 Mountain Gorilla Census in the Virunga Massif, which the Volcanoes National Park is part of, indicate that the population has increased since 2010 by nearly 26%, clearing demonstrating that Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and its many Governmental and Non-Governmental partners have been doing a good job – protecting critical habitat, reducing illegal activities, managing park-community relations and effectively managing visitor experiences in the park.
CFN: Kwita Izina has helped educate many people to the benefits of protecting wildlife, do you think fellow African nations could learn from Rwanda's environmental policies?
The Kwita Izina ceremony, as well as mountain gorilla conservation, has been embraced by the wider Rwandan community; we believe that this is a huge success. We are strong believers of a pro-people conservation policy. People must be at the forefront of conservation. That is why we ensure that 10% of all national park revenues are shared with the communities living around our national parks. When people are able to see the direct benefit of conservation, they are more likely to embrace conservation. In Rwanda it's not surprising to see former poachers working as park rangers. The target of protecting 30% of land for conservation efforts by 2030 should be what the whole continent aims for. We have proven in Rwanda the social and economic benefits these protection measures bring, other African countries must strive for this too.
CFN: What policies does Rwanda have in place to ensure an enabling environment for conservation and bio-diversity initiatives?
BK: Rwanda has demonstrated continued commitment to conservation by strengthening existing laws, policies, and national strategies, as well as created new ones – legal and policy tools critical to effectively protect and manage in a sustainable manner, our diverse natural landscape.
The most recent has been the development of the Rwanda Wildlife Law which will provide more effective legal protection for protected areas and wildlife, while at the same time harmonizing with similar laws in trans-boundary parks and within East Africa. This will help African countries work together to achieve the common goals of the continent.
CFN: Rwanda is a champion of community led conservation, how is the RDB and REMA encouraging Rwandans themselves to look after the environment?
In order to increase community support for and benefits from its national parks, the Government of Rwanda made the decision in 2017 to increase the Revenue Share Program in order to increase from 5 to 10% of all tourism revenue for investment in community development projects around national parks. This unique Program will result in a doubling of community benefits which was $US 2.5 million in more than 145 projects over the past 10 years. Once again this reinforces the economic and social value being brought about by our efforts to protect nature and bio-diversity.
CFN: The RDB's aim is to reach $800 million by 2024, double what was generated in 2017 – how will Rwanda ensure that with tourism growth the country's bio-diversity and natural resources are protected?
BK: Although it has one of the largest population densities in central Africa and great ambitions for its tourism sector, Rwanda has a rich and well preserved natural heritage. Rwandans have recognized the critical need for conservation-based tourism and economic development through the protection of its natural ecosystems, having become a World leader with 8.9% of its land base protected as national parks.
Rwanda protects its wildlife and landscape for cultural, social, moral, economic and biodiversity conservation reasons. Our food, water, energy security and the growing tourism industry strongly depend on our country's wild lands and wildlife. Conservation-based tourism, is one of the key pillars of our economy and has been one of Rwanda's major foreign currency earner for the last seven years, earning $US440 million in 2017 and representing 10% of our GDP.
Notwithstanding Rwanda's conservation success story, we still need to do more. It is for this reason that the Government of Rwanda, through the Rwanda Development Board, is advancing a project that will see the expansion of Volcano National Park by up to 25%.
This unique, legacy project will result in significant conservation and tourism benefits including increase in mountain gorilla populations by an estimated 15-20%, a 50% reduction in infant Gorilla mortality, and a potential doubling of direct tourism revenues by 2024 through increased visitation of 10% per year. This project will also serve as a catalyst to improve the lives of more than 18,000 Rwandans living in the park area through investment in modern housing, social infrastructure, and the delivery of important skill development and job creation programs.
CFN: Does Rwanda plan to play more of a role when it comes to pan-African and global bio-diversity initiatives?
BK: The effective protection and presentation of our unique and varied natural heritage requires the collective efforts of all - government, non-government organizations, and the private sector.
From the community engagement and the tourism revenue sharing to the trans-boundary collaboration in the conservation of shared ecosystems, the Government of Rwanda has been effective in bringing together all of its partners to sustainably preserve and present our natural heritage. We will need to continue growing this partner base for continued conservation success into the future.