September 24 was the World Gorilla Day, and Kwita Izina, the annual gorilla naming ceremony with 24 baby gorillas named. The ceremony was again held virtually just like last year due to covid-19 restrictions While prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the naming ceremony attracted crowds international and domestic tourists social distancing restrictions to contain the spread of the virus has made it impossible to have a physical event.
Worse still, the existing Covid-19 restrictions have also dampened international travel during the summer break.
As a result, the local communities around the national parks are feeling the pinch as many remain unemployed as tourist numbers remain low compared to prior to the pandemic.
Yet over the last decade, the naming ceremony has changed many lives for the better. Not only was the ceremony a great source of livelihood for the local communities, but also helped to minimize cases of poaching.
For instance, the COPAVU Mararo co-operative says it was making at Rwf 1 million during Kwita Izina in three days. Today, their shop can spend a month with zero revenue. This is the fate of many small businesses around the National Parks.
Now, entrepreneurs like Agnes Uwamahoro, a mother of five, featured in this week’s edition are raising alarm. They decry both the loss of income and are concerned that wildlife may be at risk.
For Uwamahoro, whose family has generated income from making and selling wooden arts at Volcanoes National Park and dedicated her life to mobilising her community to fight to poach, it is important that measures are taken to return local communities around National Parks to work to save wildlife.
This is because prolonged economic hardships increase the risk of poachers returning to killing wildlife.
There is a real risk that as the local communities struggle to find alternative income-generating projects, they will kill wildlife.
While the economy is gradually reopening with forecasts indicating a positive trend in terms of recovery, the outlook is still damp for the tourism and hospitality sectors as restrictions on international travel remain.
Therefore, it is imperative that a special relief package is put in place specifically targeting local communities around National Parks. Such a fund could help ease the economic hardships and may minimize the risk of poachers turning to kill wildlife.
Rwanda’s consistent efforts in promoting conservation have earned it a global reputation, and make it a competitive tourism destination. It is also paying off economically including attracting multi-million-dollar conservation projects. The government must not drop the ball.