Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A growing gorilla industry in Rwanda

By: Sandhya Kambhampati                                                                 Produced & Edited by: Daniel Medlock
The tour guide and the soldier use machetes to chop away at the forest. Between swings, the tourists peer through the brush desperately hoping to see gorillas looking back at them.
Each year, more than 20,000 people attempt to see the approximately 290 Rwandan mountain gorillas, a highly endangered species.
A Once in a Lifetime Trip
Betsy Rumer saw the gorillas in the mist in August 2010. While the permit to go see the gorillas was $500 per person, Rumer says the trek up the mountain was worth ten times more than the money she paid.
“We got the last permits for the day, so when you have one shot at this, you think about what you’re going to spend it on,” Rumer said.
The trek began in the Rwanda's capital, Kigali, and then went up through the Volcanoes National Park, where Rumer and her tour group were able to witness the gorillas in their natural habitat. 
Before the tour began, they were instructed how to behave around the animals. Forty-five minutes later, Rumer found herself standing among the gorillas.
“It was like standing in a living room of gorillas,” Rumer said about the gorillas, which she said seemed to be very well protected.
A Collaborative Effort
According to the Chief Warden of the Volcanoes National Park, Prosper Uwigeli, that protection is a collaborative effort of the government, park officials and international organizations.
A Rwandan mountain Gorilla (Andy Rouse/Corbis)
The two biggest threats to the park currently are the illegal poaching and the habitat destruction. Additionally, because of population increase around the parks, the mountain gorillas can be exposed to contagious diseases.
“We need to continue to monitor everything as the gorillas are vulnerable species,” Uwigeli said. “There’s always challenges, so we need to overcome the political instability [in these areas] and work together. We need to make sure we know how to provide for the future.”
Protecting the gorillas requires cooperation with Rwanda's neighboring countries - the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. 
Rwanda and Uganda are the only two countries in the world where people can currently see mountain gorillas safely, according to park officials. 
There are 18 different families of gorillas, some families that are for tourism and others for research purposes. There are currently 480 mountain gorillas in the Virunga Conservation Area, which encompasses Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, according to the 2010 census. Tourists can go visit the park, but there are a limited number of permits that are issued each day.
As of 2010, the number of permits issued was approximately 17,000 per year. Park officials say they are now facing the issue that the demand is higher than the availability of permits. In 1999, 417 people visited the Volcanoes National Park to see the gorillas. In 2008, 17,000 people visited. Today, park officials estimate that number is 28,000. Forty percent of these visitors to the park are from the United States.
Leónce Muhire, ICT director at the Rwandan Tourism University College (RTUC)  believes that while Rwanda has an important tourism plan, they need to be objective with their vision and make the security within the city stronger than the neighboring countries.
“Rwanda needs to overpass Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania in tourism,” Muhire said. “They have a bigger surface to develop and ours is very small, so we have to rely on discipline, security, vision and no corruption to sell our services to our neighbors.”
Tourism and the Genocide
Tour guide David Mugisha of Wildlife Tours-Rwanda said that in his nineteen years of his job, tourists now view tourism in Rwanda as a safe, life enriching experience. The job is a full time commitment for him, but it is all a part of reaching the country’s overall goal.
“In terms of professionals and infrastructure, we are moving to become the number one country in Africa in tourism development,” said Mugisha. “In every service, the more time you spend doing it, the more experience you will get and the more that others will understand you.”
But the tourism industry was not always this way. 
(Via National Geographic)
Before 1983, the gorillas were not used as a revenue source for the tourism industry, according to Frank Keesling, of the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund. Most of the country's money came from coffee or tea production. Permits for the park were just $125.
Following the genocide in 1994, current President Paul Kagame invested in the Rwanda infrastructure to help protect the Volcanoes National Park and the gorillas. Because of these efforts, gorilla tourism is the number one source of income today, bringing in around 10 million dollars. The government has allocated five percent of revenue to go support local schools and water tanks.
“The gorilla industry has changed by better educating the trackers and porters as to how the protect the gorillas,” Keeling said. “Today, the gorilla has a chance at survival but all the stars must stay in alignment for a long time.”
Jean Felix Kinani, a head field veterinarian of the Gorilla Doctors in Musanze, said the country’s revenue is important to his organization and the overall protection of the gorillas.  
“Without the tourists, NGOs cannot get money to perform well,” Kinani said. “We check all the vets and park staff to see what kind of diseases they have and what diseases the gorillas can possibly get. That is why collaboration is important. Gorillas don’t need a passport or visa to move around.”
With this in mind, Julien Niyingabira Mahoro said he is proud to see the tourism industry growing and is excited for the future.
It is true that there are different speeches about how horrible this country is, but when people come from different corners of the world to stay in Rwanda, eat in Rwanda, walk on streets in Rwanda, interact with people in Rwanda, go to clubs in Rwanda... they certainly have more success stories to tell than bad experiences,” Mahoro said. “They say, ‘You never change the history,’ but I like the fact that people identify this country to cleanness and greenness, wonderful people, and a visionary leadership rather than to genocide and other 1994 atrocities."

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