Rwanda's Mountain Gorillas Find a Friend
In 2004, when park worker Edwin Sabuhoro heard that a baby gorilla had been poached from the Volcanoes National Park, it became a turning point in his life. The native Rwandan had heard rumors before of gorillas being poached and offered for sale on the black market.
Given their scant numbers, Sabuhoro knew intimately most of the gorillas in the park. Poaching or killing a gorilla is a serious offense in Rwanda, and the local authorities organized a sting operation in which Sabuhoro acted as mediator between the police and the suspected poachers. The baby gorilla was eventually rescued from the home of a villager and the poachers were arrested.
The incident shook Sabuhoro. He kept asking himself, Why would anyone harm a baby gorilla and risk prison? He decided to ask the community himself. They told him that they were desperate and needed money to feed their families, and challenged him that he would do the same if his family were threatened with hunger. As it stood, the local community received little benefit from tourists, who paid $500 to the Rwandan government for a daily gorilla trekking permit.
Sabuhoro quit his job and gave part of his savings to the local villagers to plant crops. He then went to England to further his studies and earned a master's degree in conservation and tourism in 2006. When he returned, Sabuhoro began working with the community on development projects aimed at providing economic alternatives to poaching.
Together they launched the Iby'iwacu Cultural Village, which sits on the edge of Volcanoes National Park and is entirely owned by the local villagers. Tourists who come to the region to see the gorillas can now also learn about local culture and history. Sabuhoro is proud of the fact that Rwanda's three main tribes, Hutu, Tutsi and Twa, work together in this community. He says they see themselves as Rwandans first.
Sabuhoro wants to ensure that his country's precious natural resources, including the mountain gorillas, are preserved for future generations and his work now is focused on encouraging the community to conserve its culture. Through a variety of efforts in recent years, poaching of all park animals has been reduced by 60 percent.
This year, Sabuhoro launched his own eco-tourism company. His efforts in the community have been recognized by a number of international awards; most recently, he received the 2008 Young Conservation award from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.