Tag Archives: tourism

No summer tourism for the Virungas National Park

Tourists taking pictures of one of the gorillas at the Virungas National Park

Tourists taking pictures of one of the gorillas at the Virungas National Park

Hello, this is Tuver,

Unfortunately the situation at the Virungas National Park here in DR Congo still doesn’t look very good. As you might know, the last couple of months have been very difficult since a militia called M23 occupied the territory, threatening the security of the mountain gorillas living in the park.

The situation has degraded further now since the Mountain Gorilla Sector not only remains occupied by the rebels but also since last week the militia has been in control of the town of Bunagana, located at the border between Uganda and DR Congo. This place is one of the main entry points to the park so it makes the situation even more difficult.

All of these problems suggest the outlook for the rest of this summer is far from good and this is having a devastating impact on the fragile but precious tourism industry here. The authorities at the Virungas National Park have already cancelled all the trips for this month and for August and the situation will be reviewed until the 20th of July.

I will keep you posted regarding the decision the authorities take for the coming months. In the meantime, I can only hope the situation gets better, especially for our gorillas living in the park.

Tourists watching gorillas in the wild

Tourists watching gorillas in the wild

Ian Redmond – Dian Fossey, Gorilla hats and ecochurches

26th August –  Hi Folks! 

I’m sitting typing on a Ugandan bus, crawling up winding dirt roads towards Kisoro in the dawn light (after only 5 hours kip) with low mist in the valleys, a pink tinge in the sky behind and a distraught hen clucking in the arms of the passenger in front – I do so love Africa.   I’m a bit behind in my blogs again, so although I’m now heading out of Uganda to fly across the great congo basin to Kinshasa, let me tell you about my arrival a few days ago. 

19th August – The day after my visit to Group 13 , the British Embassy in Kigali kindly hosted a press conference on the Year of the Gorilla and why I was undertaking this journey across the ten gorilla range states.   Although called at rather short notice, it was well attended by print, radio and local TV journalists. 

After my presentation on how saving the gorillas (and other seed dispersal agents) will help to save the world (from dangerous climate change), I invited questions.  The first was typically direct, “How much of this money you are raising is coming to Rwanda?”  

Ian at press conference - Picture by Goodman.

Fortunately, I shared the platform with Rosette Rugamba of the Rwanda Development Board, who spoke eloquently of Rwanda’s plans for gorilla conservation, including the possibility being explored of developing a buffer zone of tree plantations around the park boundary, and even reclaiming some of the land excised in the 1970s by the notorious EC-backed pyrethrum scheme. 

All options were being explored, including leasing privately owned land in key areas to allow regeneration of gorilla habitat – which brought to mind the private conservancies in southern Africa, where income per square km from wildlife tourism can be greater than from farming.  The journalists took copious notes and indeed covered the issues well (see for example http://www.newtimes.co.rw/index.php?issue=13993&article=18988). 

After doing my own interview with Rosette for the YoG Blog videos (DVDs are now winging their way to Bonn so should begin to appear on-line before too long), I headed down to the bus depot and bought a ticket on the next bus to Ruhengeri, sorry, Musanze – recently renamed as part of the attempt to move away from the negative connotations of the events of 15 years ago.

Like Kigali, Musanze is changing fast, especially with the construction of new hotels as local entrepreneurs seek to cash in on the tourism boom.  I was pleased to see that the Hotel Muhabura (built in 1954, same as me) was still taking on the competition, and yesterday grabbed a quick YoG interview with the proprietor, Gogo.  Reminiscing with her, I said I was surprised there was no plaque or display noting that Dian Fossey used to stay here. 

Dian Fossey and young Mountain Gorilla - Picture by Ian Redmond.

I first stayed in the Muhabura in 1977 when Dian and I had come down the mountain for one of her occasional public lectures (yes, Dian did do outreach before the term was invented, though this is seldom remembered) and have stayed there many times since.  Dian always asked for Room 11, and I suggested this might be used to raise funds if guests who stayed there were asked to pay a premium rate which could include a donation to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, the US-based NGO that continues the research and joint anti-poaching patrols (with the park guards) that Dian started.

It was dark by the time the bus pulled into Musanze, and as I stood beside my rucksack surrounded by curious faces, it took me right back to my first arrival in 1976.  Dian had written saying Ruhengeri was a small town and if I waited with my luggage, her porters would soon find me.  They didn’t, but the reason for that became clear when, as Dian had also requested, I picked up the post from the Post Office Box.  Among the letters was the telegram with the date of my arrival… so I ended up delivering my own telegram.  

This time, however, I was soon found by my good friend Francois Nkinziwikhe, conservationist, musician and choreographer, who strode out of the darkness wearing a comical gorilla woolly hat, made by women in the local community in another of his latest initiatives.  Francois is a big, energetic man and a compulsive organiser.  He trained the local dance troupe that my brother Chris and partners have twice brought to tour the UK (http://www.caribzones.com/balletinganzo.html), but there was never enough money in the shoestring budget for him to accompany them.   This evening he’d enlisted the help of local businessman Faustin Musanganya (also building a new hotel, the Gorilla Twin Lakes) to give me a lift to Virunga Lodge, where Volcanoes Safaris had kindly offered to put me up for the night.  

Eva Reed models gorilla woolly hat while tasting Virunga Honey - Photo Ian Redmond.

We had a useful meeting to discuss his various projects, one of which is eco-churches – which enlists the good environmental advice given in the Bible to raise awareness through religious communities of the need for conservation and sustainable development.  I put him in touch with a similar group in Cameroon called REAP – the Religious Environmental Awareness Programme, and would encourage any church groups able to help to get in touch. 

At the end of an affable and productive evening, I left him my single malt and he gave me one of his gorilla hats – maybe they could become the new fashion for winter sports?  Do get in touch if you can make this happen..

Read Ian’s previous post here!

August 18 – Role models and a sexy Mountain Gorilla encounter

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond.

Up at 4.45am! Yahaya was on time too and after hurtling along the winding road in the dawn light, we arrived at Kinigi to find the car park bustling.  The Chief Warden, Prosper, was expecting me and I was assigned to Group 13, along with an American honeymoon couple, an English couple and two blokes from Barcelona.  The throng of people began to form clusters around signs, eight to each group, and the briefings began.  Our guide, Edward, gave a bit of background to the park, the gorilla researchers over the years and began the basics of gorilla etiquette.

Ian Redmond with gorilla watchers, Volcanoes NP, Rwanda. Picture Ian Redmond.

We drove a short way to the park boundary, had another briefing on how to behave in the forest, then squeezed between a gap in the buffalo wall only to meet a couple of buffaloes!  They quickly moved off, but Edward thought it expedient for us to squeeze out of the park again and walk along the outside of the wall a ways. We passed a team of villagers repairing the wall (for free) where an elephant had recently damaged it. When we entered, I was excited to see huge washing-up-bowl-sized footprints in the mud where the elephant’s feet had sunk in deep.  

The path we followed first was familiar to me as an old coffee-smuggling route (bags would be carried across the border in whichever direction led to the highest coffee price at the time) but we soon climbed over a ridge and dropped steeply down into a crater called Kibumba.  

The gorillas were high on the opposite crater wall, and were still feeding when we reached them.  I suggested we wait a while before beginning the allotted hour because trying to watch them while they were travel-feeding on a steep slope would have made for a very difficult time for all.  Everyone was desperate to see their first gorilla, but understood why it was better to wait. When we eventually did climb up towards them, they were still feeding but not moving much, and a couple of infants delighted everyone by posing for the camera then wrestling gently.  

We then witnessed what might be called the ‘bottom line’ of gorilla conservation, and I realised that some of my videos might need a PG rating, because Agashya, the silverback began mating with one of his females.  I can tell you it was an unusual copulation, but I will save the more detailed account of this fascinating behaviour for an exclusive article in BBC Wildlife Magazine at the end of the year.

Mountain Gorillas slide down slope during copulation, Infant watches fascinated - Photo Ian Redmond.

Briefly, they started above the tourist group, then slipped and slithered down the slope, with barely a break in his rhythm, ending up against a thicket 10 metres below, watched closely by the female’s two-year old infant.   It certainly was the climax of our observations… groan… In fact, I thought we might get a few more hits than usual if we include the phrase ‘slithering sex’ in the key words for this blog!

All three eat celery after the mating is over! - Photo Ian Redmond.

We left them enjoying a post-copulatory snack of celery and slithered down the slope ourselves to the crater bottom where everyone recorded their impressions for the YoG Blog. It was a grand day out indeed, but there was one more pleasant surprise in store. 

Gorilla guide Edward is a role model for local kids, Kinigi, Rwanda - Photo Ian Redmond.

Edward had mentioned that some of the boys living around the park HQ were really interested in his work and would often ask him questions. I asked if he could round up a few for a YoG interview and he called over four delightful young lads who clearly saw him as a role model. On camera, two said they wanted to be gorilla guides and two said gorilla vets, and I couldn’t help but rejoice that in Edward, they had a better role model to follow than some…

Read Ian’s previous post here.

August 17 – Boomtown Kigali, Rwanda

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond. 

Kigali is booming.  High-rise buildings are popping up like mushrooms, the kerbs on the dual carriageways are painted and everyone seems to be talking on mobile phones.  

I was welcomed by Dr Tony Mudakikwa, a wildlife vet now working at the Rwanda Development Board – the government body which includes tourism and national parks – on the fifth floor of a smart glass and metal office block with a computer on every desk.  At the helm is the dynamic Deputy CEO, Rosette Rugamba, and I sat in on a meeting she had with the Gorilla Organization to discuss some of their projects.  

GO has been building water cisterns in schools for years, after surveys put this at the top of a list of community needs;  these were so well received that other NGOs began installing them, but Rosette was concerned about the lack of coordination or overall planning.  Signs were also on her agenda.  Any such projects in developing countries come with a big sign saying what it is, where it is and who funded it, usually in acronyms and logos.  Rosette felt these signs were a missed opportunity, “Why can’t they all carry a simple message beneath a picture of a gorilla – ‘Helping us to protect our forest’?” she asked.  

Mountain Gorilla habitat, Rwanda. Picture by Ian Redmond.

It seems such an obvious idea – people queue up to fill water containers so what an ideal opportunity to offer a bit of conservation awareness. For me, though, the most exciting outcome of the meeting was the confirmation that there was a gorilla permit available the following day.  An early night was called for because to be at the Volcanoes Park HQ in Kinigi at 7.00am, I’d have to be up at 4.45am!

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond: Gorilla Ambassador’s visit to Rwanda

Ian Redmond, YoG AmbassadorIan Redmond, Ambassador for the UN Year of the Gorilla, participated in the International Conference on Gorilla Conservation in Rwanda which preceded the annual Kwita Izina gorilla naming Ceremony. As well as being YoG Ambassador in 2009, he is also Chief Consultant for GRASP, the UNEP/UNESCO Great Ape Survival Partnership, aiming to conserve gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans – all of them endangered species.

During his visit, The New Time’s Fred Oluoch-Ojiwah caught up with Ian Ambassador during the 5th Kwita Izina celebrations. This is a shortened version of the interview.

FOO: Ambassador Ian Redmond, kindly share with readers the key focus areas of your ambassadorial duties.

IR: It is 33 years this year since I first came to Rwanda to work with Nyiramatchabelli – the late Dr Dian Fossey – and I have spent much of my time since then talking about gorillas, writing about gorillas, studying and filming gorillas. Thus, my ambassadorial position has simply given more impetus to the work I already do, but on a higher level. The YoG is an international campaign in support of the new CMS Gorilla Agreement, a legally binding treaty agreed on by the 10 gorilla range states (most people don’t realise that out of nearly 200 countries in the world, only 10 have gorillas, and all of them are in Africa). It is fantastic how many people and organisations have joined in to make YoG2009 a success. All over the world governments, conservation organisations and zoos are organising conferences, fund-raising events, public lectures, gorilla film shows, etc.

FOO: Do your efforts entail fundraising? If so, the global financial crisis has hit what could easily be your targeted sources. So what is your plan B if any?

Kwita Izina Crowd

IR: Of course people all over the world are feeling the pinch financially, and this affects donations to charities, but many small donations can add up to significant amounts. The various partners are welcome to use the YoG to raise funds for gorilla projects, there is a list of priority projects for any donations to YoG itself – see www.YoG2009.org for details. As for Plan B – that should in fact be Plan A – there is a growing recognition that everyone on the planet benefits from the eco-system services provided by tropical forests – carbon storage, oxygen production, climate stability global rainfall and biodiversity – and yet none of us pay for them. More and more decision-makers agree this must change, and the UN Climate Conference to be held in Copenhagen this December will be where we hope the first steps will be taken by including tropical forests in the post-Kyoto climate agreement, which is currently being negotiated. If carbon finance is used to better manage and monitor tropical forests, it will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation, it should conserve endangered species such as gorillas so they continue to play their vital role in the ecology of their habitat.

FOO: How do you intend to ensure a sustainable conservation for Gorillas is as far as creating a balance between tourism and conservation is concerned in Rwanda?

IR: Rwanda seems to be striking that balance very well, with professional guides and calm, habituated gorillas giving an outstanding experience to every visitor who tracks what Dian Fossey used to call ‘the greatest of the great apes’. Our hope is that Rwanda, Uganda and Eastern DRC will be able to share their experiences with the other seven countries – perhaps by sending staff on secondment to work in, say, Gabon or Cameroon or Congo Brazzaville, or by inviting people trying to develop gorilla tourism in those countries to work here for a few weeks and see how you do it. Circumstances are different in each country, so methods will likely need to be adapted to fit, but the exchange of skills and experiences would be very valuable.

FOO: Talk about the projects centred around giving back to the communities living close to gorillas in Rwanda.

IR: The practice of revenue sharing is one of the keys to widespread acceptance by surrounding communities of the need for protecting the Virunga Volcanoes Conservation Area. We should remember, though, that it is not just about tourism dollars! Forests provide many services to everyone just by being there; water is a good example: The Volcanoes National Park is only about half of one per cent of Rwanda’s area, and yet it receives about 10 per cent of the country’s rainfall, and the forest stores that rain and releases it slowly during the dry season. Gorillas disperse the seeds of trees such as Pygeum Africana and so by protecting gorillas you also guarantee the next generation of trees and other plants that rely on them to spread their seeds.

FOO: How would you rate gorilla tracking as a regional tourism attraction?

IR: Over the years I have introduced hundreds of tourists to gorillas; some of them are wealthy people who have sailed up the Amazon, visited Antarctica and watched wildlife all over the world, and yet almost without exception they come down the mountain tired, wet, scratched and muddy saying that meeting gorillas is the best experience of their lives! At the same time, many of them say they were drawn to this region by the gorillas, but they fall in love with the people too – the friendly welcome and fabulous culture is just as important to visitors.

FOO: You are just back from Akagera, I presume to see what Rwandan Tourism has to offer. What is your take about our destination?

IR: It was wonderful to see the Akagera Lodge refurbished, and the views there are world-class. I was saddened a few years ago when Akagera was reduced in size, but from what I have heard of the government’s environmental policies today, the importance of rebuilding eco-systems outside of protected areas is well understood. Our challenge in the 21st Century is to help communities develop and improve their standard of living in a way that is compatible with a healthy planet, and that means adapting our farming methods to become more sustainable, and planting more trees (especially indigenous species, which also support bird and insect life). Tourists who fly increasingly want to offset the resulting carbon emissions; Rwanda is trying to reforest its denuded hillsides – why not put these two facts together and offer every visitor the chance to offset the greenhouse gas emissions from their travel by contributing to a community tree-planting project?