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Partners Not Poachers—Putting Community At The Heart Of Conservation In Rwanda

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in the Virunga masif in Rwanda © Governors Camp Collection

On the craggy slopes of Mount Sabyinyo in northwest Rwanda, eight spacious, stone cottages look out over the dramatic mist-wreathed scenery of the Virunga massif. Open fires crackle in the cottage hearths as private butlers attend to their well-heeled guests; tourists who have come from far flung places to track the mountain gorillas resident in the nearby Volcanoes National Park.

These wealthy visitors are paying several hundred dollars a night for the privilege of staying at Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, a luxury safari property with a difference – it is owned by the local community, who receive a share of the lodge revenue to use in local development and conservation projects.

The lodge was created by a partnership between the Rwanda Development Board, African Wildlife Foundation, and International Gorilla Conservation Program, with the aim of creating a high end tourism property founded on sustainable tourism principles. So while the lodge is managed by the popular Governors Camp team (well known for their exclusive safari camps in Kenya), it is owned by SACOLA, the Sabyinyo Community Livelihoods Association. This community trust manages the funds raised by the lodge, investing money directly into local welfare and conservation projects.

African Wildlife Foundation Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in Rwanda © Governors Camp Collection

The results have made a major difference to the way communities interact with conservation in the area. SACOLA have financed the building of two new villages for displaced genocide victims near Kinigi and Nyange; they have put up a community cultural centre; erected several classrooms for district schools; introduced a rural electrification scheme; set up beekeeping and bamboo-craft projects; and funded the hugely popular ‘One Family, One Cow’ program. They have also developed some of their own tourism activities that provide local people with an income – SACOLA dancers entertain tourists at the local cultural centre with traditional dancing and drumming, visitors enjoy guided walks around the local community, and can buy souvenirs made by a women’s basket-weaving co-operative.

Yet it was not so long ago that the park itself was under threat by the very communities that benefit from it today. In this densely populated area of rural Africa, many people are traditionally dependent on forests for their livelihood. Those living near the park would enter the forests illegally to collect firewood, harvest yams, wild honey or medicinal plants, and lay snares to hunt bushmeat. Their actions contributed to a slow destruction of habitat, and also posed a health risk for the gorillas. An inquisitive ape could be injured by a snare, or human diseases and illness could be transmitted to the gorillas.

Furthermore, in a country where farming is the national occupation, both politicians and communities felt the park represented a potential resource for agricultural development. Indeed, as recently as 1969, 10,000 hectares of parkland were degazetted for pyrethrum cultivation, thus depriving the gorillas of valuable lower altitude habitats.

Gorilla Tracking in Rwanda © Jane  Jeremy Hoggett  Journeys Discovering Africa

Rather than developing a ‘fortress mentality’, conservationists quickly realized that in order to protect the gorillas, the park would have to offer clear benefits to the local people by providing a better source of income and employment – better than what they could stand to gain by the alternatives of turning it over to farmland or using the forests for traditional hunter-gatherer practices. As a result, the Mountain Gorilla Project was established in 1979, with a view to developing gorilla tourism for this purpose. It was certainly time for a change, as around this time the gorilla population had reached its lowest ebb – a 1981 census in the Virungas put the total number at just 254 individuals.

Fast forward to today and the gorilla population has almost doubled. Furthermore, the majority of the community around Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda is no longer seen as at odds with the park and its wildlife. Indeed, local people are now willingly collaborating with conservation organizations and eco-tourism companies, fully participating in the protection of the national park and its most prized asset – the gorillas. The relationship between conservation and community has undergone a sea change in Rwanda, and Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge has been at the vanguard of this process.

SACOLA Village Built With Sabinyo Silverback Lodge Revenue © International Gorilla Conservation Project[2]

Anna Behm Masozera, Director of the International Gorilla Conservation Program explains:

“The community benefits beyond the revenue from the lodge – they are in the driving seat for developing their own livelihoods – identifying projects, setting priorities, and seeing projects through with their own resources. This has been a shift, and a profound one, from NGOs and donors setting the agenda.”

SACOLA has around 50,000 members, drawn from villages and farmland around Mount Sabyinyo, many of whom are former poachers and honey harvesters who often speak with evangelical zeal about their ‘conversion to conservation’.

The key has been that the creation of Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge offered a refreshingly pragmatic approach to sustainable tourism. Rather than putting local people in conflict with wildlife, in an ‘us and them’ situation, it is harnessing the lucrative tourism potential of that wildlife to deliver real, tangible benefits to the community.

SACOLA Dancers © Barthelmy  Journeys Discovering Africa.jpeg

While the mountain gorillas are by no means out of danger – the IUCN still classifies them as a critically endangered species – by making community ownership central to this dynamic, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge has placed the people at the heart of conservation in Rwanda.

Behm Masozera agrees: “With over 1,000 people per square kilometer living in some areas near Volcanoes National Park, conservation of the mountain gorillas cannot win without support at the household and community level. We need communities onboard to denounce poaching, which still takes place in the park. Without people seeing the benefits of the park and the gorillas to their daily lives, which is what SACOLA is working towards, then the message of protecting the park falls on deaf ears of people who are struggling for subsistence.”

The sign outside one of the SACOLA villages echoes her words very neatly. In bold yellow paint on a green background, the organization spells it out: “We protect the parks for the benefit of the people.” Harnessing that simple formula is without doubt the key to saving Africa’s wildlife, all across the continent. 

Credits: Photos 1&2 Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge © Governors Camp Collection; Photo 3 Gorilla Tracking in Rwanda © Jane Jeremy Hoggett Journeys Discovering; Photos 4 © International Gorilla Conservation Project; Photo 5 © Barthelmy Journeys Discovering Africa

Anne-Marie Weeden
About the Author

Anne-Marie Weeden works for Journeys Discovering Africa, helping to provide tailor-made wildlife safaris to East Africa, including gorilla trekking tours in Uganda and Rwanda.

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