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Guarding Gorillas--Unrest Doesn't Stop Training for Rangers

  • Thursday, April 1, 1999

When the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP) realized that the lack of security in Rwanda's Volcano National Park would prevent them from training rangers there to monitor the mountain gorillas, they did the next best thing: They relocated training to the Nyungwe Forest Reserve some four hours south in Rwanda.

"Rather than delay their effort to strengthen field protection of the gorillas," says AWF program technical director Katie Frohardt, "the IGCP moved forward with critical ranger training in Nyungwe, another afro-montane forest very similar to Volcano National Park, minus the gorillas."

Mountain gorillas are found in three protected areas in the Virunga mountains on the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Uganda, they are found in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Much of the region has been buffeted in recent years by civil wars and refugee movements that intensified the threat to the gorillas.

In response, the IGCP, a joint project of AWF, Fauna and Flora International and the World Wide Fund for Nature, has taken steps to coordinate gorilla protection throughout the region.

Nyungwe was chosen as an alternative site because its ecosystem closely approximates that of Volcano. In fact, it is believed that the two areas were once part of a chain of afro-montane forests in western Rwanda. Covering about 375 square miles, the Nyungwe ranges from low, fertile valleys to high mountain peaks with subalpine vegetation. Nyungwe is noted for its abundant plant and animal life. About 270 tree and shrub species are found there, as are 100 varieties of orchids. The reserve is a bird watchers' paradise, with nearly 300 species. Although buffalo and forest elephants have disappeared from the reserve and the antelope population has declined, it's possible to see servals, golden cats and bushpigs. Visitors who hike along Nyungwe's trails may see any number of primates, among them chimpanzees, mangabeys, blue monkeys and tree-living black and white colubus monkeys.

Despite the absence of mountain gorillas in Nyungwe, the reserve is a fitting place for rangers to learn techniques for tracking and protecting gorillas. The rangers learn, for example, to read the landscape, to identify different types of vegetation and shifts in vegetation zones, which may provide clues to the whereabouts of gorillas. They are trained to look for signs of human activity, such as snares or cut bamboo. They also learn to use GPS (global positioning systems) units for pinpointing the location of gorillas.

Jose Kalpers, who was with the IGCP from 1991 to 1995, has returned to serve as the technical adviser for the training program. As soon as the security situation allows, the rangers will be back in Volcano National Park using their new skills.

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