Prosper Uwingeli, Chief Park Warden, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
My experience with wildlife began when I was a little kid, born in one of the villages of Ngoma District near Akagera National Park in Rwanda where interactions with animals are common. One scenario I vividly remember was when poachers chased a duiker until it took refuge in our compound and my father told the poachers that an animal that takes refuge in a home should not be killed, frustrated the poachers left and my father later released the duiker to go back to its habitat. From this time, I realized how much danger wildlife is exposed to and the need to protect it.
Many years later I actively joined conservation work. Serving at Volcanoes National Park for 18 years in different positions has offered me a unique opportunity to experience conservation at different levels and in different ways. Along this journey I have also had a couple of learning and exciting moments, turning points as well. One notable turning point was in 2008 when I was appointed as a Chief Park Warden. Although I had spent 8 years working, learning and engaging with partners at different levels, the appointment felt like a surprise and a huge burden at the same time. I however quickly digested the new role and took on the challenge, and given the exceptional work environment in Rwanda, a government driven conservation strategy all made and still makes the burden a lot manageable.
My early conservation engagement at the park was mostly about understanding the park as a wildlife habitat. At that time, I did not I know about conservation challenges and the process, let alone the need to address them! Looking back, I laugh at how naïve I was, but, still value that time because it gave me the opportunity to understand the behavior and movement patterns of wildlife especially mountain gorillas and their contribution to the economy. This inspired me to love and conserve them. It also gave me adequate understanding of the saying that you can’t conserve what you do not know or do not understand. My personal and serious linkage to conservation has always been the passion to contribute to the protection of mountain gorillas. This desire still motivates and drives me today. It is important for every conservationist to first discover that personal reason and motivation for supporting conservation. Understanding this will facilitate effective conservation.The tourism revenue sharing program initiated by the government of Rwanda in 2005 offered a strong message and reason to the park adjacent communities to support conservation. Since then volcanoes national park counts so much on the support of these communities towards conservation.
It is quite amazing how successful conservation strategies depend on multiple and sometimes complex dimensions. Through my service at Volcanoes National Park I have experienced three different gorilla censuses and a number of other coordinated efforts in the Virunga massif and the greater Virunga landscape. I must admit that I have enjoyed following the various expectations the gorilla census brings among stakeholders and the positive mobilization of national and regional institutions to support and make it happen. And all this has taught me the importance of collaboration and the need to upscale regional collaboration right from the rangers’ coordinated efforts to the regional protected areas’ authorities and legal commitment from the three governments – DRC, Rwanda and Uganda.
While I applaud the efforts of the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration to work on the legalization of transboundary collaboration, I emphasize the need to continue working with rangers and wardens that have contributed to the relative success of transboundary collaboration. Rangers and wardens are a key piece in conservation that we just can’t ignore or expect to succeed without.
Finally, I’ve also learnt that governance is key and the most critical for the success of conservation. There must be leadership to recognize, coordinate and support conservation efforts, even realizing the conflicting nature of some programs and bringing about a vision of shared success among stakeholders. I am grateful for the stability and visionary conservation leadership we have enjoyed in Rwanda, which has provided incomparable positive environment for conservation partners around Volcanoes National Park to work together to achieve the current success stories, and ready to use lessons learnt to shape the future of conservation at national, regional and international levels.