“Why don’t you keep the gorillas closer to the edge of the park so that it is easier for tourists to visit them?” asked a student from Kampanga Secondary School to park guide Patience Dusabimana while mountain gorillas from the Ugenda group ate and rested in front of us.
Patience translated the question to me with a sparkle in his eyes and a smile on his face. It was this moment that we had been waiting for- the moment in which we knew the wheels were turning in Emmanuel’s head.
A few hours earlier, as we had all walked up to the edge of Volcanoes National Park, climbing the lower slopes of Visoke, Emmanuel Turatsinze (above left) had told me about the activities he does in the environmental club at his school. He had also told me all about why poaching is bad and why it’s important to the local and national economy to protect mountain gorillas. His responses were a testament to the extent that the conservation message has permeated the schools, but it was also very obviously a ‘canned’ response.
But now, thanks to his experience in seeing the gorillas, in going for the first time into the park, he started to think about how things worked- both the forest as well as tourism. What followed his question was a discussion about the fragility of the health of mountain gorillas and how to keep the individuals and the family healthy, they need to have habitat in which to roam, sleep, and eat. “Otherwise, if we forced them to be where we wanted for our convenience, in 20 years or less, these gorillas would be gone,” explained Patience. To this, Emmanuel nodded with a serious look on his face and went back to watching Ugenda lounge with other members of his group.
Emmanuel went to visit mountain gorillas with three fellow students as well as their chemistry teacher, Jean Felix Muhire. They were all very inquisitive. So inquisitive that we spent about an hour at the park boundary before we went in to see the gorillas. And we spent another hour or more outside the park boundary after the visit, discussing all aspects of conservation.
Patience was amazing with the students. He told them about how he went into the park for the first time when he was 12, to hike to the top of Visoke to see the crater lake, after convincing his mother that he wasn’t crazy for wanting to go in the park. Now he’s not only a guide in Volcanoes National Park, but also a member of the executive committee of SACOLA, the community association who owns the Sabyinyo Silverback luxury lodge and uses income for community development and conservation projects.
We talked about the challenges that Volcanoes National Park is facing- population density, degraded habitat, small park size. We talked about the need to think of new ways to provide for both the growing human population and the growing mountain gorilla population, so both populations could be healthy and strong.
But most importantly we talked about how conservation needed their ideas and energy now as well as in the years to come, and it was a duty that they all soberly and excitedly agreed to take on.
The International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) is sponsoring Rwandan secondary school students and their teachers to visit the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park thanks to a grant from the Annenberg Foundation through the IGCP coalition member, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). So far, 450 Rwandans from secondary schools neighboring the park have visited mountain gorillas through this program and hundreds more have visited other park attractions such as the endangered golden monkeys and the crater lake on Visoke. The project began in 2011 and will continue through 2012.