Rwanda: Age Didn't Stop Me Tracking Gorillas

In 29 years, Tito Rutaremara, a seasoned Rwandan politician and one of the founders of Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), has not been in Volcanoes National Park since 1991 during the liberation war, and even then, he had no "heart" for gorillas at the time.

Only recently, at 76, did he decide to go for gorilla tracking. He visited Sabyinyo gorilla family in the midst of Virunga Forest. He spent two days in one of the hotels in Musanze at the foothills of Virunga Mountains.

"When we arrived, we were briefed by a group of tour guides on the dos don'ts in the forest and started trekking. It was of course tiring for me given my age, but very exciting," he narrated.

Mr Rutaremara is now the chairman of Rwanda Elderly Advisory Forum whose responsibility is to advise on the country's most pressing issues. The forum reports to the president. He also served as the Chief Ombudsman and as a senator.

Old eyes, new insights

"I was thrilled how Rwanda is blessed with amazing nature. I was not aware until now," he told The EastAfrican.

He decided to visit gorillas now that prices are lower and tourism needs domestic tourists now more than ever.

In June, the government announced gorilla promotional prices for gorilla tracking down to $200 for Rwandan nationals. This, said Belize Kariza, Chief Tourism Officer at Rwanda Development Board, was to encourage domestic and regional tourism.

Mr Rutaremara, too, was inspired to visit gorillas as Rwandans like him have the privilege of paying only $200 while international tourists part with $1,500. He thinks Rwandans can take advantage of such largesse.

He, however, understands that given the living standards of Rwandans and the Covid-19 pandemic that has frustrated households, $200 may be hard to afford. But there are other affordable packages for ever willing tracker.

"Gorillas are endangered but we cannot all queue for them because there are other exciting things to see. For instance, trekking the Virunga mountains is exciting at only Rwf5000 ($5.11)," he said.

Asked why he thinks promoting domestic tourism is important to him, Mr Rutaremara said it is to right the wrong and widely-held mindset that travel is for foreigners.

"It is not always about cost. There are some very affordable tourism packages. Let fellow Rwandans come see what their motherland has to offer in terms of natural beauty and tourism," he said.

Conservation mechanisms

Mr Rutaremara was thrilled by how the government, hotel owners and residents around the park are committed to preserving the gorillas and nature.

"The hotels and other commercial activities near the park are built in nature-friendly designs that allow the forest, wild animals and the park to grow and expand without detriment. I found it inspiring," he added.

In 1990s when Mr Rutaremara came back to Rwanda ahead of armed RPF columns, mountain gorillas were on the verge of extinction with only 300 remaining worldwide and going downhill. Today, as a result of Rwanda's conservation efforts, the number is now 600.

Residents around the Volcanoes National Park receive 10 per cent of revenues from the park in the form of infrastructure such as schools and hospitals.

This is considerate because host citizens are the first conservationists of the park and gorillas.

"Before, residents near the park were the ones hunting the animals and poaching in the forest. Now they understand why they should protect the park instead, and that has been very effective," Mr Rutaremara said.

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