Communities surrounding Rwanda’s national parks are playing a crucial role in the country’s conservation efforts, an official with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) said ahead of an annual gorilla naming ceremony next week called Kwita Izina.
Since 2005, the Rwandan government has adopted a policy where 10% of all park revenue is given back to these communities.
This is done through the funding of community based projects which help rally communities behind conservation.
In the last 14 years, a total of over 5.2 billion Rwandan Francs (about $5.6 million) in tourism revenue has been used to fund 647 of these projects, according to RDB.
The projects have helped provide clean drinking water, health centers, classrooms and housing to communities living adjacent to Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda, Nyungwe National Park in the west and Volcanoes National Park in the north.
“People support conservation like their individual businesses because we realized that we stand to reap the benefits. A while ago, no one cared,” Abudul Karim Munyantore, a resident of Nyabihu district near Volcanoes National Park, said.
This community involvement has had a big effect on conservation to the point where even former poachers are now dedicated protectors of wildlife, said Munyantore.
For example, due to these conservation efforts, the population of the endangered mountain gorilla in the Virunga Massif rose to 604 in 2016 from 480 in 2010, according to a recent report by RDB.
The Virunga Massif comprises the Mikeno sector of Virunga National Park in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda.
Mountain gorilla numbers in the entire region had fallen to as low as 242 in 1981, RDB reports show.
But gorilla conservation is now the backbone of Rwanda’s eco-tourism strategy.
“The increasing number of mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park is proof of the strides made in gorilla conservation. This couldn’t have happened without the support and collaboration of our conservation partners as well as the cooperation of the members of the community surrounding the park,” said RDB Chief Tourism Officer Belise Kariza.
Jonah Ngirinshuti, a conservationist, agreed with Kariza on the need for community involvement to ensure sustainable conservation.
Funding of impactful projects through tourism revenue for example prompts residents near parks to support conservation initiatives and avoid poaching, which is one of the biggest threats to wildlife conservation, he said.
In line with the tourism revenue sharing program, RDB recently donated 729 cows to communities surrounding Volcanoes National Park in Burera, Nyabihu, Musanze and Rubavu districts as part of activities leading up to this year’s gorilla naming ceremony slated for Sept. 6.
Such projects provided under the tourism sharing scheme are critical in bettering the lives of communities living near the parks, said Munyantore.
The revenue sharing program was initiated by the Rwandan government to guide investment in areas surrounding the country’s national parks.
Held under the theme ‘Conservation is Life’, this year’s gorilla naming ceremony will take place in Kinigi at the foothill of Volcanoes National Park in northern Rwanda.
A total of 25 infant mountain gorillas will be named this year, according to RDB.
Kwita Izina is unique to Rwanda, introduced in 2005 to create awareness of conservation efforts for the endangered mountain gorillas.
A number of activities are lined up as part of this year’s naming ceremony.
They include a conservation exhibition focused on conservation trends and practices and the first ever Business of Conservation Conference.
The conference will attract global conservation leaders, providing a unique platform linking conservation with sustainable tourism by embracing all layers of the value chain, according to RDB officials.
Initiatives such as the gorilla naming ceremony play a major role in conserving gorillas, said Kariza.
She said that due to conservation efforts, Rwanda has been able to improve the gorilla trekking experience for visitors and also increase the amount of support given to local communities through the revenue sharing program.
“Rwanda’s tourism strategy has always focused on two important areas: sustainability through responsible tourism and conservation and community involvement,” she said.
“It has always been about protecting our natural heritage, providing world class experiences that highlight the diverse natural beauty of Rwanda while ensuring that Rwandans benefit from this tourism and conservation. No one has been left behind.”
This year, using park revenues in 2018, RDB said it has allocated 1.4 billion Rwandan Francs (about $1.5 million) to the revenue sharing program, up from 741 million Rwandan Francs (around $806,000) in 2017.
In 2018, Rwanda hosted 1.711 million visitors, with arrivals up 8% from 2017, RDB figures show.
Overall park revenues in 2018 reached over $21.1million, with permits sold to tourists for tracking gorillas bringing in US$19.2 million, the figures show.
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