After losing half of all gorilla infants in the past ten years to insecurity and diseases, the government has embarked on a multi-billion project to expand the National Volcanoes Park to accommodate the growing number of endangered mountain gorillas.
The gorilla habitat spans across Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the volcanoes park, a UNESCO world heritage site and home to Earth’s last remaining mountain gorillas. Security in the area has deteriorated in the past decade.
In July, DRC announced it would auction oil and gas permits in its gorilla habitat, a decision that alarmed conservationists. It was after bomb shelling from the DRC injured residents and destroyed properties in Kinigi sector, where part of the park is located.
A third of the mountain 604 gorilla population has migrated to Rwanda since 2010, according to the Department of Conservation at the Rwanda Development Board. The park now is home to 370 gorillas in 22 families. The migration and the growing population have drastically increased the number of mountain gorillas located in Rwanda’s habitat, leading to overcrowding.
Gorilla mountains are described as overly territorial animals that mark and never share home ranges. When their spaces overlap, they fight, injure infant gorillas, or spread respiratory diseases. Over 300 baby gorillas have died from such incidents in the past 10 years, as explained by Eugene Mutangana, a conservation expert at RDB.
“This was an important reason for Rwanda’s decision to expand the park. Security, space, and food are essential for their (mountain gorillas) survival,” Mr. Mutangana explained.
While conservationists worry that deteriorated security in the Congo Nile basin threatens the endangered mountain gorillas, the Chief Tourism Officer at RDB, Michaella Rugwizangoga, said the country calls for regional effort.
“Rwanda is pleased to host the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration and we plan to work even more closely with our neighbors to strengthen collaboration and joint conservation programs, including monitoring of the park and ensuring the park’s integrity,” Rugwizangoga said during this year's gorilla naming ceremony, Kwita Izina in Kinigi, Musanze.
The Volcanoes National Park currently occupies 160 square kilometers and touches the sectors of Muhoza and Kinigi in Musanze and Cyanika in Burera district. Thesurrounding community has over 17,000 citizens.
By the end of the expansion project in 15 years, the occupied area is expected to have increased by 23 percent. Mutangana said that reducing human-wildlife conflict is among the reasons to expand the park. He told Rwanda Today that at least half of the 370 gorillas exit the park every week.
Multiple incidents of destroyed crops and trees are reported near the park every week. Kinigi sector records most incidents of crops destroyed by gorillas that exit the park.
Innocent Twagirimana, Executive Secretary of Kinigi sector told Rwanda Today that citizens were relieved and welcomed the project and its benefits.
“We have cases where crops get destroyed by the gorillas and owners are not satisfied by the compensation. There is a lot of resentment among the community regarding that issue, and we hope the project will end this,” Twagirimana said.
The national park’s expansion will add 6,620 hectares of the buffer zone and reduce human-wildlife conflict by 80 percent. The end goal of the project is to see the gorilla population increase by 30 percent to 784 mountain gorillas by 2037. The World Bank is the key funding partner of the project.
According to RDB, the project will resettle 3,400 families in modern villages. Designing the villages and drawing up the resettlement plan has already started. The community will also benefit from the employment opportunities that will come with the project.
Over $70 million will be invested in resettling the communities. Rwandan Prime Minister, Edouard Ngirente recently emphasized the importance of involving communities in conservation efforts.
“That is why our tourism revenue-sharing scheme is such an important part of our conservation strategy. By investing in the communities that surround our national parks, we are building a strong constituency for conservation that will span generations.”
More than $7.9 million has been invested in 881 projects in communities adjacent to Volcanoes, Akagera, Gishwati-Mukura, and Nyungwe national parks.