Conservation Diplomacy: Mountain gorillas as ambassadors

Tuesday, September 22, 2015, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Rwanda signed a treaty at a ceremony held in Kinshasa, DRC, witnessed by a senior delegation from the Republic of Uganda, confirming the commitment of the three States to work together for the conservation of the Greater Virunga Landscape. As pen was being put on paper and speeches made, I reflected on the years, and in fact decades, of work by so many that have made this milestone a reality.

Minister of Trade and Industry in Rwanda and Minister of Tourism in DRC exchange copies of the signed treaty with the Head of the Uganda Delegation, Mr. James Lutalo, Commissioner of Wildlife in Uganda, looking on. Kinshasa, DRC. September 22, 2015. Photo: GVTC.

Minister of Trade and Industry in Rwanda and Minister of Tourism in DRC, center, exchange copies of the signed treaty with the Head of the Uganda Delegation, Mr. James Lutalo, Commissioner of Wildlife in Uganda, looking on. Kinshasa, DRC. September 22, 2015. Photo: GVTC.

In May this year, the flags of the three States sat in front of each delegation as the final negotiations and decisions on wording of the treaty document itself were being made. While the negotiations were serious, those in the room kept the dialog flowing with the aid of professional translators, reminding themselves and each other to keep in mind the spirit of the treaty agreement, every time differences of opinion on wording threatened to derail the dialog.

I have been privileged to witness the final steps of conservation diplomacy leading to the now signed treaty as Director of IGCP, and I am inspired by all the men and women at all levels, from park staff, civil society and government institutions who have contributed to where transboundary collaboration has now reached and what the newly signed treaty will enable in the years to come.

At times, frankly, it meant political and even personal risk to ensure the tranboundary coordination of conservation and protection activities took place when not a very popular nor well understood concept. The International Gorilla Conservation Programme developed our niche in aiding practitioners on the ground, and their headquarters, to facilitate transboundary coordination in this uncertain environment, allowing for coordinated patrols along the shared international border which dissects gorilla habitat into three separate parks in three neighboring countries. Over time, our role has changed, and continues to change as the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC) becomes a fully formalized institution. It is so rewarding to see this process unfold, and transboundary conservation of the Greater Virunga Landscape be institutionalized in something robust and sustainable.

The coordinated activities at grassroots, and their contribution to what is considered a success in the growing population of mountain gorillas, necessitated the development of a formal, institutionalized arrangement to reinforce their legitimacy and create the enabling environment for staff on the ground. And now, this treaty, once ratified by all parties and put to implementation, will provide just that, the story about to come full circle and the treaty not only enabling the coordinated activities of the past, but so much more, including landscape planning and the harmonization of policies.

Mountain gorillas themselves have been key ambassadors within this process, due to the value placed on them by the three States, thanks in part to their high profile and the role they play in local and national economies through gorilla tourism. Mountain gorillas featured prominently in today’s events, while not detracting from all the other equally important and endemic species of fauna and flora they represent. In addition, the role of fauna and flora, and ecosystems within the Greater Virunga Landscape to the livelihoods and economies of the region was well recognized and part of the impetus to conserve this landscape to allow for sustained development of people.

Congratulations to the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration, for this milestone achieved, in anticipation of the remaining formalities and the signature of the Republic of Uganda along with that of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Rwanda.

Many more milestones to come, as the real work is just about to begin…

Anna Behm Masozera

IGCP Director

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