“They said it was our way of living and they taught us how to do it, our fathers did. Poaching was therefore in our blood and an art we had inherited from our fathers to survive through the biting poverty,” notes Faustin Rushemeza, now a reformed poacher and secretary of Kiaiki ex-poacher’s Cooperative in Ruhengeri, Rwanda. Faustin explains that they knew that poaching was illegal but they didn’t have any other source of income and food, the park was their only immediate source.
On a very chilly morning, I had the privilege to meet and learn from two ex – poachers about their past life as poachers, their journey to reformation and their current life as ex-poachers. Listening and talking to them made me appreciate the everyday challenges of park adjacent communities, one, the test to stay loyal to the park (source of all you need) amidst poverty and hunger and the remarkable contribution these communities are capable of making when involved in conservation.
For a long time, the communities living in the border villages of Cyanika and Bugeshi suffered hunger and poverty that they heavily depended on the park for survival ranging from meat for food and sale, medicinal herbs, honey and timber for construction. They often set traps/snares in Volcanoes National Park to catch bush backs, buffalos and antelopes for meat, elephants for ivory. Unfortunately, mountain gorillas sometimes fell in their snares and got injured or even died. Explaining the tough times then Francois Ndugutse, a reformed poacher and President of Kiaki ex-poachers Cooperative, says they lived from hand – mouth, even what they poached was never enough. Sometimes their families fed on the meat or they would exchange it for some little food and other house hold necessities, so the cycle was never going to stop unless a lasting solution was found.
Whereas the community suffered hunger and poverty and found solace in the park, the park management on the other hand was struggling with the challenge of poachers and encroachment on the habitat. However, through its community conservation program Rwanda Development Board in collaboration with other partners like IGCP and the Karisoke Research Center of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund continued to sensitize the communities about the ills of poaching and benefits of conservation. Slowly the communities began to understand and lay down their tools.
The reformed individuals were encouraged and organized to start associations through which they would easily be reached and supported on their resolution.And ‘Amizero’ meaning hope (current day Kaiki) was formed in 2004 with about 100 members. The members were then given financial support from the revenue sharing fund to start income generating projects (rabbit and goat rearing, nursery production, Irish potato growing, crafts making, etc), this motivated them to completely stop poaching and concentrate on the alternative sources of income and food they had started.
This financial support plus the sensitization efforts led to an increase in the number of reformed poachers. Gradually the numbers of Amizero grew and by 2010 the association split into 7 other associations that went ahead to register their legality withRwanda Cooperative Agency (RCA). Today the umbrella is composed of about 3,867 members in 46 cooperatives and is also one of the strongest Cooperatives around Volcanoes National Park.
The groups are involved in conservation activities inside and outside Volcanoes National Park including park cleaning of rubbish and exotic plants, buffalo wall maintenance or construction, maintenance of trails and other tourism attractions, sensitisation of suspected poachers and erosion control through bamboo tree planting under the agroforestry programme of IGCP. The wages earned from participating in these activities coupled with the income generated from their other income generating projects have led to a boost in household incomes and consequent livelihood improvement.
“There are definitely more benefits from being a non-poacher and a conservationist – I have seen most of the members do things we would never have accomplished in our past life. We are paying school fees for our children, paying medical bills, building houses, buying other properties, living and eating well, all this was so hard before” Francois narrates. Francois mentions that they are grateful to the Government of Rwanda and all the conservation partners that persistently worked with them to stop poaching. “It is not easy to completely stop poaching but with continued sensitization and support for alternative sources of income and food, it is possible,” he adds.
Reflecting on the past, Faustin wonders how they survived being attacked by the wild animals in the park. “The whole venture was risky, but we were overshadowed by our demands. Anyways we are remorseful for what we did in the past, and that is why we have chosen to be anti-poaching ambassadors and conservationists!”