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Posts Tagged ‘nature’

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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