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Posts Tagged ‘Dian Fossey’

I’ve been home in Montreal for a week now and have finally settled back into the rhythm of things. Simple things like supermarkets and the metro are very odd to me. However, I’ve been so well treated at DFGFI that I feel this culture shock would be much bigger otherwise.

My last day in Rwanda was just as memorable as my past two months doing this internship. I was informed last minute that the Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks had found an open spot on one of the gorilla treks for the morning of my departure. Some would say that deciding to climb a volcano a few hours before boarding a plane is just a bit too rushed, flaky even. Others, however, would point out that passing up an opportunity to see the rare Mountain Gorillas that can only be found in the area I’ve been working in for the past two months would be just plain foolish. I agree.

I woke up at before dawn in order to make sure that everything I had was packed and ready to go for when I got back from my trek so I could make a mad dash to Kigali to catch my plane. I had been told that if I was going to slam down the serious cash to see the gorillas ($500!), that I should try to go see the Susa group that is the longest trek but the largest group. Alas, I didn’t have enough time to spend trekking all the way up the Karisimbi volcano and so I settled on a steeper but shorter hike up to the Amahoro group.

After a long drive along the usual rock strewn roads that my driver jokingly dubed “an African massage,” we arrived at the bottom of the Bisoke volcano. The trek was long, the group had moved further up the volcano to the dismay of the other tourists. The altitude is just a bit too tough for some people and when you are not young and spry, the climb can be a killer. I’ve been living in Ruhengeri for two months now and have no longer fallen victim to loud panting after climbing up a small hill.

The guide and I were a bit ahead of the group when we finally arrived at a massive crater half-way up the Bisoke volcano. Our guide began to make vocalizations to announce our arrival and that we meant to harm. “rrraaa-hummm, rrraaa-hummm.” All of a sudden, there was a huge amount of rustling in the trees next to us. The guide and I were suddenly face to face with a 600 pound gorilla. The silverback had come to say hi. Directly behind us was a sudden drop into the crater; squeezing my hand, the guide and I made ourselves as small as possible as the big guy brushed by us. After what seemed like an eternity, he went off in another direction to see what our next move would be.

With my heart racing, I was excited to see the rest of the group. Not far off, we could hear more rustling in the trees. Above us, another male gorilla climbed into one of the trees and started to peel the bark and chow down. Soon, a few young ones came round to see what all the commotion was about. Once they realized it was just some bald albinos come to stand and stare at them again, they went back to wrestling each other. I can’t imagine what they think of us. What strange behaviour for an animal to do nothing but stare at them with seemingly no purpose whatsoever? I know one thing for sure, these gorillas blew me away and I could have spent ages up there on that volcano with them Every thing they did mesmerized me. When I caught a glimpse of the recently newborn baby, I was absolutely elated. When they broke out in screams bickering over food, my adrenaline began pumping. Every second was amazing. If I had left Rwanda without having been able to experience this moment I would have been kicking myself forever.

Rwanda, I will miss you. I have come to love you and all the people within. I’ll be back to see these gorillas again.

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Stepping out the door on my first morning in the Tayna Nature Reserve was breathtaking.  Everywhere I looked there were rolling hills covered in forest and mist.  In the distance, one could hear the dancers still dancing from the night before.

 

The Tayna Nature Reserve is at the forefront of conservation innovation.  The idea is simple: instead of forcing the population surrounding a park out with guns, give them reason to celebrate and embrace it.  Let the people become the benefactors and know why they need the reserve. This is called Community Based Conservation. The founder of this concept is Pierre Kakule Vwirasihikya.

 

 

Pierre was born and raised in the city of Butembo, which is the closest urban center to the reserve today.  After finishing high school, he left for Goma where he worked as a guard at the Virunga National Park.  Three years later he was chosen to go to Cameroon where he would study about conservation for the next two years.  His dedication to conservation fortified and when he returned to the Virunga National Park he became Chief Warden.  His job as Chief Warden put Pierre very often in grave danger; the civil war was waging and is continuing today.  The park was and still is under threat by rebel groups and poachers.  After ten years in this post, Pierre realized that if he truly wanted to make a change he would have to take charge. In 1997, Pierre quit his job in order to try and establish a community reserve for his home region.

 

His first step was to talk to the chiefs of two villages next to the forest.  “They said it is difficult and that benefits go elsewhere and are not recycled into the community,” says Pierre.  These were legitimate concerns, based upon previous conservation attempts in DRC, and Pierre decided that the only way the forest could be protected was if it benefited the community; thus, the concept of a community based nature reserve was born.  Batangi and Bamate became the first two villages to donate land for the reserve.  In 2000, the first general assembly for the Tayna Gorilla Reserve took place.   The assembly agreed that if the reserve was to exist, the finances must be used for development and that in no way should the rangers carry arms.  For the first time in the DR Congo, a forest was going to be protected without the use of guns.

 

 

In 2001, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International was approached for help and offered to seek funding for the project and provide technical training and legal guidance.  By that time, the reserve was functioning.  The guards and guides were being funded completely by the coordinators and the chiefs.  With DFGFI financial and technical support, Pierre worked on a committee to expand the project.  By 2003, basic medical care, orphanages (needed because parents died from war and disease) and numerous other developmental projects were being supported.  In the same year, in order to ensure that the children of the chiefs and landowners were trained in conservation, a university was built.  The Tayna Center for Conservation Biology University (TCCB) was started with 21 professors on subjects relating to conservation and community development.  In 2006, the University was formally accepted by the DRC Ministry of Education and the subjects expanded to six faculties including medicine. In 2007, 67 students graduated with their bachelor’s degrees.

 

The Tayna reserve has been so successful that other communities have come to Tayna to learn about establishing similar reserves.  Pierre now sits as Executive Secretary of the Union of Associations for Gorilla Conservation and Community Development in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (UGADEC).  The Union brings together eight community reserve association which all put money towards developing their area. Two of the eight community based reserves are recognized by the DRC government as “Protect Areas” which have the same rights as national parks but are managed by the communities. The other six reserves are in various stages of development to meet their conservation goals to be legally recognized as protected areas.

 

 

In 2004, a Regional Health Clinic was built in order to treat students and local people.  It has since grow considerably and is able to service the entire community and functions to link rural smaller health clinics and provide essential regional life-saving treatment.  In addition, a radio was constructed so that students in journalism could practice their studies and could broadcast on information on conservation and health.  A year later, a primary school was established specifically for the many orphans caused by AIDS and war.

 

It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the impact Pierre has had on these communities.  He has persevered despite the destructiveness of war and poverty.  There is still a great need to invest in DFGFI community initiatives which can become sustainable to reward people for their commitment to conservation. Pierre says, “The point of Tayna was to alleviate poverty and for strangers to come visit through ecotourism initiatives,” says Pierre, “we are proud of our forests and their amazing biodiversity. We are grateful that DFGFI would help us when no one else was interested.”

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Now it’s hard to not have preconceptions about a country you hear so much about in the news.  For a country emerging from one of the most devastating events of the 20th century, you’d never expect the degree of normalcy that Rwanda gives off.  Now it’s easy to say such things as a Muzungu; the brevity of my stay just simply does not allow me the ability to delve much deeper than the superficial appearance of things.  Rwanda has progressed leaps and bounds since the 90s. One of the things that I was most surprised to discover when coming to Rwanda is the degree of gender equality.  Now I’m not saying this as if it is good in comparison to other African countries; Rwanda has a requirement that 30% of its government be made up of females and the actual number is above that. This is something not even Canada or the United States has ever achieved.  Because women are now seen as being breadwinners, poor families see a reason in sending a girl to school.  “Before, parents did not want to have girls; they were only good for having kids and cultivating,” says Hakuzimana Marcelline who is the coordinator of the clinic program for Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, “Parents chose between kids to go to school and girls stayed home.”

 

 

Marcelline is one of the women who work at the Karisoke Research Center. She has worked as a nurse for 8 years and just started with DFGFI in May of 2008.  She trains other nurses and health animators on sanitation, nutrition and parasites.  Over sixty health animators go into the local population next to the Volcanoes National Park and check their health and talk to them about their living conditions.  Marcelline goes into the population as well and briefs people on toilets, washing hands, proper clothing and taking care of their bodies.

 

 

 

Today we are on the edge of the park in Bisate where we are going to see the water tank that was installed by the water and sanitation program of DFGFI.  The people who live next to the forest are the one with the most contact with gorillas. The need to ensure their health is a priority.  Because of the lack of clean water, parasites are common and it is Marcelline’s job is to make sure that anyone who is found with an infection be treated.

 

 

On the park frontier in Bisate, the well-off families have houses made of mud. The red mud that most houses are made from has to be shipped up by truck because the volcanic soil is too porous.  This can be a pricey endeavour so most houses are made of bamboo and covered in banana leaves.  When we arrive at the water tank there is a crowd gathered around the spout.  The dry season is just about to begin and I am aware that this crowd will be double the size once it does.   After walking around a bit, Marcelline pulls me over to show me something.  There has been a mischievous little one who has been defecating around the tank.  She gathers the kids together and gives them a small lecture on why it is so important to go in the latrine. “Parents have to teach their kids to protect themselves against parasites,” says Marcelline.

 

 

Marcelline is optimistic that the status of women will get even better with time. “For the moment, women are still low in society. There are not even many women who are nurses but now you see women in all different fields: there are women drivers, managers and politicians.”

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I have a slight fascination with plants.  Botany had always been a side dream of mine.  Plants don’t judge; they don’t think: they just are. Each one is a fascinating in its own way, perfectly adapted to their environment.  You could spend lifetimes, and people have, studying the billions of different plants that have evolved to be in that place at that time.

 

That’s why, when I interviewed Aimable Nsanzurwimo who is the coordinator of the Botany Research Program at the Karisoke Research Center, I could hardly contain my glee.  The Albertine Rift has 1,034 plant species, 82 of which are endemic to the Albertine Rift, with more being discovered all the time.  Aimable is basically a kid in a candy store and I envy him.

 

Aimable Nsanzurwimo has been with the Karisoke Research Center since 2005 but, like most employees here, started as a student studying for his bachelors on bamboo.  Bamboo is very important vegetation to both the monkeys in the park and the gorillas as they provide a good source of food. By looking at species that are associated with bamboo growth, he could determine the positive and negative impact they had on its growth.

 

Of particular interest to him was whether or not gorillas knew to choose certain plants in order to medicate themselves.  Aimable looked at how the local population used plants for medication and then looked at what plants the gorillas eat.  The two corresponded.  Of the 110 plants used by the people for medicinal purposes, the gorillas shared 35.  This meant that there is a possibility that the gorillas were eating certain plants to help with minor illnesses, such as bowel troubles.

 

Some of the plants that gorillas eat include the secamone Africana, the gomphocarpus physocatpus, the pentarrhinum inspidum and, of course, bamboo which is shared by both gorillas and Golden Monkeys.

 
 

 

The vast amount of diversity at the park means that Aimable has a large amount of work ahead of him.  He has begun a plant database of all the plants in the park.  He has also reviewed the list of plants that the monkeys and gorillas eat.  Around 80 and 114 plants are eaten by them respectively.  So far, he has identified 162 plant species and discovered new species of moss, orchids and sponges.  Weather in North-Western Rwanda is varying; I was supposed to have missed the rainy season all together but instead the rain continued for another half a month.  In order to measure this change, Aimable has begun recording rainfall per month.

 

 

In the future, Aimable wants to continue his research on bamboo and orchids over a long term along with continued updates on the plant catalogue.  He also hopes to have a botanical garden for all the plants in the first two vegetation areas of the volcanoes.  The mere idea of having an area where one can be surrounded by and observe all the different plants of the Volcanoes National Park makes me drool.

 

However, Aimable’s set-up is still not up to par for the work he is trying to do now.  The sad fact is that he does not have enough resources: he is using newspapers to preserve plants.  Nevertheless, looking back to 2005 and how the Botany Program has so far grown, Aimable is very happy and believes the best is yet to come…

 

“If there are no plants, there are no gorillas!”

Photos provided by Aimable Nsanzurwimo

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My days at the Karisoke Research Center have consisted of me getting up in the morning and coming to the office.  Once there, I pretend to write something while staring frustratingly at my rising pile of notes.  The amount of work I’ve been doing has risen dramatically since I arrived here.  I have at least 2 or 3 interviews planned for me per day at it leaves little time for my writing.  However, I am at the point where I have very few people left to interview and the articles are the only thing left for me to do.

During one of the staring-at-my-pile-of-notes session, Deogratias Tuyisingize came up and told me we were going to be having an interview later that day.  Many of my interviews seem to be organized in this impromptu way. I often come to the office only to find out I’m already late for an interview I was never told about.  I’ve taking up the habit of coming to the office first thing every morning just in case.

Deogratias giving a presentation

Every time I see Deo he seems to have a big smile on his face and is always eager to talk about his programs. His primary focus is the Golden Monkey program. He came to the Center 4 years ago to do his undergraduate work on the Golden Monkeys under the supervision of the Karisoke director Katie Fawcett.  He’s since become the program coordinator and has started two new programs on large mammals and butterflies. Every time Deo picks up a scientific paper, he gets an idea for another conservation project and wants to realize that idea: “I need everything to be known, not just in the Volcanoes National Park.”

Photo by Deo

The golden monkey, like the gorillas, is endemic to Albertine Rift which is the string of volcanoes I’m presently living next to in the North West part of Rwanda. The monkeys have a distinctive golden body and great bulbous cheeks.  The monkeys have been on the endangered species list since 1994 and Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International has been studying them since 2002.  The species can only be found here and the Gishwati Park to the south.

Photo by Deo

They focus on two groups of monkeys with around 80 to 90 monkeys per group. However, the groups like to live in a very small area in the bamboo zone and you cannot count them all at once. The only time a researcher can observe how many there are in a group is when the group crosses a clearing or a stream. The group will file out one by one across the stream and a tracker has to be quick to count them all as they cross.

Photo by Deo

Slain Golden MonkeysIn the long term study of the monkeys, Deo is looking at 8 behaviours: feeding, moving, resting, playing, grooming, vocalisation, fighting / aggression and copulation. The results of these studies may shed light on why the Ugandan side of the park has recorded a decline in the Golden Monkey groups at a whopping 40%!  Deo has many theories as to why this may be that he wants to test in the future.  He thinks the harvesting of bamboo and climate changes have contributed to loss of their habitat.  There is also a strange lack of babies in the groups despite the fact that there is no lack of copulation or females.

 

Antelope

Herd of BuffaloDeogratias’ next project entails the study of large mammals in the Volcanoes National Park with the support from the Protected Area Biodiversity Project. Deo is focusing on the buffalo, antelopes, duikers and, sometimes on a rare occasion, elephants.  Large Mammals is a group that is the most heavily hunted for bush meat and it is a good index of the overall conservation status.  Tourists who come to see them are an added bonus as well.  The point of the conservation project is to maintain the current population, assess the importance of the different vegetation zones and compare findings to research done in 2003 and 1991.

 

Butterflies

Butterfly

 

Finally, Deo’s latest project is the Invertebrate Conservation Project with the butterfly as its model.  This project is still just a skeleton and will study the importance the conservation area provides for the invertebrates.  Hopefully, like the gorillas, the butterflies will become something tourists, as well, could be able to come to the Virungas to enjoy.

 

While Deogratias loves animals and works towards preserving them, it is very hard to find funds to train and staff people needed for project teams.  Insecurity in the Democratic Republic of Congo also makes it hard to find funding for that side of the park so animals are left helpless if they move across the border.  Deo’s enthusiasm for his projects is very energizing.  I know one thing for sure; he will always try to find new and exciting ways to save the animals he cares so deeply about.

 Photos by Deogratias, Antelopes photographed by Veronica Vecellio

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Bisate School

“Muzungu! Muzingu!” all the children shouted as I arrived at the primary school in Bisate. My guide today, Joseph Karama, the manager of the Education Program for Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund international, turned to me and said, “Do you know what they mean? They are shouting: White person! White person!”  When travelling, most people resent the fact that locals will always treat them as an outsider and always will consider them as much  no matter how well they assimilate into the culture. I’ve felt this way many a time before but have come to accept the fact that my pale skin and blond hair makes me stick out like a sore thumb.

 Bisate kids

The kids swarmed us as we got out of the truck to meet the director of the school, Ndayambate Michel.  The school was split between several small buildings that housed the classrooms. It was built in 1972 by the ministry of education and provides schooling for 1,700 children, but until recently had few resources and poor sanitation.  There were only six toilets for the students and teachers to share, which meant there was one toilet for around 285 people.  The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International has since funded 25 more toilets, bringing the number of people sharing a toilet down to 55.  This number is still high and there are plans to add more in the future once enough funding can be secured.

 New toilets

 

 

 

 

 

 

Water Tank

 

In addition, the Fund installed two water tanks last year. Water is hard to acquire around this area and the conditions are therefore very unsanitary.  These tanks collect and store rain water. This is very useful, since the area gets a great deal of rain throughout the year.

 

Fifth Grade 

With help from Partners in Conservation, the Fund has provided writing materials, notebooks, geometry kits, science books, an atlas and the Hobe newsletter that is written specifically for kids up to the age of 6. The soccer teams also have new uniforms and the school has received a suitcase filled with puppets of all the local animals to teach conservation education. Joseph added that the Fund has just ordered bicycles for all the teachers. This resulted in big congratulations all around and lots of excitement.  Plans also in the works include new solar panels that will provide electricity for the school.  The roofs also need to be replaced since the ones that don’t collect rain water are still made with asbestos and can also be used for collection in the future.  There is also a need for new classrooms, since the secondary school is presently borrowing several of their classrooms.  The construction will cost $75,000 in total.

 

 

Director of the School

The director of the school is fairly new and was very happy to work for a school supported by the Fund: “When I first came here, I was pleased to hear that it is supported by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.  The Karisoke Research Center has given over 12,000 books, which is an opportunity other schools don’t have.  This school will be excellent.”

 

 

Two Students

 

His hopes are high and he tells me that eventually he would like to see a computer lab built for the secondary school and to have a sheep cooperative for the teachers to improve their lives.  I too hope that these can become reality. It’s only a matter of money. It always is just a matter of money.

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So I can’t really post anything about the programs here for now but I can (I think) post maybe about how well I’m being treated.  I’ve got to post something because I’ve noticed that the number of people reading this has dwindled from around 50 or so to about 5. I assume those 5 consist of my mom, my roomate, and the people at Karisoke who are interested to see if I posted anything about them yet.  If you’re really wondering what I’ve been up to or just plain hate to read or are a big fan of travel slideshow reels, you just need to look at my Flickr Page to see what pretty pictures I’ve taken recently. But then again, you wouldn’t be able to read any of my witty banter.

the researchers' houseAnyway, I’ve been living at one of the Karisoke houses that are the home to the non-rwandan part of the staff. For the moment, I live with Veronica Vecellio and Simon Childs. Veronica is the program coordinator of the gorilla research program and the house is essentially her home. She’s very kind to me and has been someone I look towards when I have a problem. Simon is a smart-alec British guy who’s in charge of the confiscated gorillas program. He pretty much hangs out with orphan gorillas all day. He’s the man to talk to if you want to go out and have a “night on the town” or else known as going to have a beer at the Muhabura hotel. Weekday nights are exciting here in Ruhengeri.

Karisoke Research Center

The rest of my time is spent at the office where I sit in the lobby with my computer or have interviews with the staff. You’ll hear all about them when the interviews are put up.

my office

Luckily enough there have been two other volunteers who are in Ruhengeri during the exact same time as me. Tierra and Clare are two Americans who are working with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project and they only live a block away.  Having people to share the experience who are both new as you are and the same age helps tremendously. Being the only young white girl around creates quite a stir and having other girls around certainly helps deflect at least some of the attention.

Clare sorting through years of MGVP gossip

However, my main source of company and who isn’t busy at any point in time is Miss. Goma, the house cat.  I’ve never met a lazier cat in my life but it suits me just fine because she does nothing else but lie around in my lap all day.

Goma

Well, now  you know how hard my life is. It’s been a struggle being taken care of so well but I think I’ll survive.

My backyard at night

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