One of our four pillars of conservation is “Helping Communities,” which we accomplish through our livelihood, food security and education initiatives.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, these initiatives became more difficult to organize, as schools and businesses shut down and community members self-isolated to prevent the spread of the disease. At the same time, however, our work in this area became more critical. The human communities near Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park have been economically devastated by the pandemic, which brought tourism to a halt and stopped the flow of tourist dollars into these communities.
A community in need of food often turns to the forest for solutions, and humans begin entering the forest to hunt. For years, the Fossey Fund has worked with local communities to find alternative ways for them to feed their families, reducing the number of people who enter the forest and ensuring gorillas are protected from snares and other illegal activities.
Just recently, we were contacted by group of former poachers who asked for our help during these challenging times. The Gorilla Guardians Village, also known as the Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, was formed in 2004 and is currently composed of 34 ex-poachers (20 men and 14 women) who previously survived by hunting illegally in the Volcanoes National Park. Thanks to their work in the village, which showcases traditional Rwandan culture and offers activities for tourists, they were convinced to stop poaching and instead now work to protect the park.
When tourists visit the village, they are invited to explore the traditional houses of local kings (surprisingly, one of the houses is named “Dian Fossey” in recognition of her work studying and protecting mountain gorillas). Tourists can also practice shooting with a bow and arrow, enjoy cultural dances, learn about local traditions and customs, or buy crafts and souvenirs.
With the advent of COVID-19, however, the people of the Gorilla Guardians Village are struggling. Tourism has dried up, as has their income.
In keeping with our pledge to help communities, we brought the Gorilla Guardian Village basic food supplies, including 600 kilograms of maize flour, 340 kilograms of beans, 34 bottles of cooking oil (5 kilograms each), 600 kilograms of rice and 34 kilograms of soap.
Innocent Twagirimana, a community guide at the cultural village, says that while the business and its members have been affected by the pandemic, they were recently able to restart activities with government safety guidelines in place. “We are very thankful for this support from Fossey Fund,” he says, “and we assure you to be ambassadors of your work to protect gorillas and their habitat.”
Felix Ndagijimana, director of the Fossey Fund’s Karisoke Research Center, went to the village to help deliver the supplies. Says Ndagijimana, “We thought this would be a quick event, but they had other plans, including dancing! I’m glad the team and I got to join in and practice our traditional dance moves and drumming. And I am really happy we were able to help them as they work to restart their business after the pandemic. They truly are gorilla ambassadors.”