Why are conservationists in the business of honey?

Five years ago, these gentlemen carried their beehives out of Virunga National Park as keeping hives within the forest is illegal, and for good reason. They weren’t happy about it, but they did it and re-established their apiaries near their homesteads or bought other land.

César SEBIKIMA in his apiary located behind his house in Ruguli.

César SEBIKIMA in his apiary located behind his home in Ruguri.

It was at this time that the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, or le Programme International de Conservation des Gorilles en français, became intimately involved in the business of honey. Although beekeeping inside protected areas would seem to be harmless, it is a threat to the park and to the wildlife, including in this case the critically endangered mountain gorillas.

Honeybees at work in a beehive.

Honeybees at work in a beehive.

When it comes time to harvest honey, beekeepers use small fires to smoke the bees out of the hives long enough to extract the honeycomb. Trouble is that these small fires can spread as what happened in 2009 when a fire accidentally started by a beekeeper near Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda spread, crossing over into Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.

Fire in Volcanoes National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in July 2009 burned around 300 hectares.

Fire in Volcanoes National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in July 2009 burned around 300 hectares.

There are other reasons that beekeeping is a threat. Beekeepers will alter the environment around the beehive to better position the hives and attract the bees including chopping trees or branches. Beekeepers will also take advantage of their time in the forest to gather other resources, setting snares for antelopes or collecting firewood or timber. The presence of people in the park also has the potential to increase exposure of mountain gorillas to human pathogens.

But these beekeepers aren’t criminals nor are they maliciously using the park. They’re looking for a livelihood. IGCP has worked with the beekeepers over the last five years to make sure that the transition to keeping their hives outside the park has proceeded smoothly so that the hives didn’t return to the park and that the beekeepers themselves wouldn’t harbor ill will toward the park and conservation efforts in general. For conservation efforts not to be in vain, we need surrounding communities to work for conservation and not against it.

Unfortunately, this same group had a serious setback when insecurity in the Mikeno Sector reached a peak in 2008 when many families fled, had their homes and their hives destroyed, and worse. It is only now that life for the beekeepers and their families resembles some kind of normal. Last November, the Union des Apiculteurs de Secteur Mikeno et Nyamulagira comprised of over 400 beekeepers in associations throughout the Mikeno Sector elected a new executive committee and IGCP is re-intensifying efforts to support the union.

IGCP's Wellard Makambo (left) and Beda Mwebesa (green shirt) along with beekeeping consultant Abraham N'Simba NDATABAYE disucss with beekeepers in Kibumba on Feb 9.

IGCP's Wellard MAKAMBO (left) and Beda MWEBESA (green shirt) along with beekeeping consultant Abraham N'Simba NDATABAYE discuss with beekeepers in Kibumba on Feb 9.

The goal for IGCP is to reduce the threat to the park and to increase livelihoods. It is also through beekeeping that we stay connected to the communities. Throughout this week, thanks to a grant from the Netherlands Directorate General for International Cooperation through the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration, an IGCP team is intensely working with the executive committee and beekeepers in general to put mechanisms in place so that profits can be made and that those profits trickle down to the individual members.

So that is why IGCP is in the business of beekeeping and honey. The next post will recount our intensive efforts this week with the beekeepers of Mikeno Sector.


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  • Byamukama James said


    This article sheds great light on the link between conservation of great apes and poverty alleviation. The task ahead is to document evidence (result and impact indicators) that conservation efforts in poverty alleviation really works.
    Bravo Anna!

  • Abraham N'SIMBA said


    Dear Anna Behm !!!
    S’il me fallait coter ce texte je te donnerais le maximun de la cote. Tu as traduit l’esprit et le vécu des apiculteurs du Secteur Mikeno.
    Voilà trois ans que je suis en contact avec les apiculteurs du Secteur Mikeno au travers les efforts fournis par le “PICG”.
    Certes l’exercice de cette activité dans le Parc était et reste un danger pour la conservation comme tu l’as si bien évoqué dans l’article.
    Cependant la façon que l’ICCN avait utilisée pour chasser les apiculteurs du Parc a été un peu singulière car elle ne garantissait pas à ceux de continuer à exercer leur métier au sein de la communauté.
    Ensemble avec les apiculteurs nous avons beaucoup discuté sur l’avenir de leur métier en dehors du Parc.
    Plusieurs d’entre eux n’y croyaient plus. Ils sont pauvres et n’ont pas de terrain au sein de la communauté pour pouvoir poser leurs ruches si ce n’est pas le champ.
    Il fallait alors ménager aux alentours de sa maison pour fixer deux ou trois ruches car en posséder plus risquait de causer d’autres problèmes communautaires aux voisins : piqure ou création des « no man land » dans le village.
    Mais au regard du bénéfice que génère le miel, certains ont risqué le tout pour tout et, comme César, ils ont plus de 20 ruches à leur domicile.
    Aujourd’hui la production est en croissance pourtant ils utilisent tous les moyens traditionnels.
    Je saisie donc cette opportunité pour féliciter le PICG pour tout ce qu’elle fait comme organisation, pour la survie de cette activité dans nos communautés. Aujourd’hui pus que hier, je vois renaitre un nouvel espoir et une raison de croire dans la volonté du PICG de promouvoir l’apiculture par des actions concrètes. Les besoins de soutient restent à combler et l’envie du dépassement dans le travail est le refrain de la nouvelle équipe dirigeante de l’UDASEMINYA.
    Merci pour la rapide parution de cet article, c’est aussi ça un changement dans la communication dont le PICG avait besoin d’avoir.

    Thank you for the job !

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