Rwanda's mountain gorillas represent one of the most remarkable conservation success stories of recent times. Decades of concerted efforts by the Rwandan government, conservation organizations, local communities, and international partners have led to the remarkable recovery of the mountain gorilla population in the Virunga Massif, a volcanic region encompassing parts of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, Rwanda is the most popular destination for gorilla trekking, and the country has made a remarkable recovery in responsible tourism across the world. In this article, we have written a brief overview of the inspiring success story of mountain gorilla conservation:

1. Historical Context

The post-colonial history of Africa is quite a turbulent one. Many African countries received their independence between the 1950s and 1970s. After this period, Africans set out on a new journey of society governance. Unlike the former governance systems that relied on spiritual ordination, the new system relied on popularity. 

Leadership inspired by popularity laid the foundation of many civil wars in Africa. Some tribes felt discriminated against, and for that reason, it became inevitable to avoid civil wars. 

Similar to many other African countries, Rwanda was never spared from post-colonial civil wars. Its climax saw the unfolding of the 1994 genocide. The civil wars did not only affect the growth of the country; the unrest increased human-wildlife conflict to the point of mountain gorillas edging extinction. By the late 1970s, it was estimated that only around 250 individuals remained in the wild.

2. Conservation Efforts

In the 1980s, dedicated conservationists and researchers, including renowned primatologist Dian Fossey, began working tirelessly to protect mountain gorillas and their habitats. Fossey's pioneering work brought international attention to the plight of these iconic primates.

During her time, gorilla safaris were not a popular activity given the fact that the foundations were simply being laid through research to understand the mountain gorillas better. 

Following Fossey's tragic death in 1985, her work was continued by organizations such as the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), which focused on anti-poaching patrols, habitat protection, and community engagement.

In 2004, Rwanda dug into its culture roots of naming new born babies by elders and extended the same to the mountain gorillas thus the first Kwita Izina. This initiative is a continuous reminder to the Rwandan community and the world at large of the continuous growth in the mountain gorilla population.

The event is always attended by celebrities and political leaders from all around the world. It is always a testament to how the mountain gorillas, similar to Rwanda's Genocide history, have risen from the edge of extinction to a reality that still feels like a dream. As of 2024, over 370 baby gorillas have been named since the first Kwita Izina in 2004. 

3. Community Involvement

One of the main threats to the mountain gorillas was human beings. Poaching in Volcanoes National Park Rwanda was quite common. Fortunately, the poachers were local people who could be enlightened about the values of conservation through rehabilitation. 

Recognizing the importance of engaging local communities in conservation, initiatives were launched to provide alternative livelihoods, promote eco-tourism, and empower communities to become stewards of their natural resources. These included the formation of the Iby'iwacu Cultural Village.

On top of the rehabilitation of former poachers, the Rwanda government introduced a revenue-sharing policy. Part of the revenue generated from the sold gorilla permits was and is reinvested in local communities through revenue-sharing schemes, infrastructure development, education, and healthcare initiatives, creating incentives for communities to participate actively in conservation efforts.

4. Remarkable Recovery

The mountain gorilla population has experienced a remarkable recovery in recent years. According to the latest census conducted in 2018, the population of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Massif has increased to over 600 individuals, marking a significant conservation milestone.

This increase in population numbers is a testament to the effectiveness of conservation strategies and the dedication of all those involved in protecting these magnificent creatures and their fragile habitats.

Since 2002, Rwanda has not registered any poaching activity in Volcanoes national park. The rehabilitation of former poachers has proved to be one of the success stories that have seen the growth of the mountain gorilla population in Volcanoes national park.

5. Ongoing Challenges

Despite the above achievements, mountain gorillas still face numerous threats. These include the raging civil war between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and last but not least, climate change. 

It should be noted that even though Rwanda has thrived to unprecedented heights under the reign of President Paul Kagame, there is no guarantee that he will be replaced by a leader who will be able to continue the golden reign of President Kagame. It is important to note the fall in the mountain gorilla population was mainly attributed to the civil wars in East Africa. 

Besides the above threat, Rwanda's success in conserving mountain gorillas serves as a shining example of what can be achieved through collaborative conservation efforts, community engagement, and sustainable tourism. It underscores the importance of preserving biodiversity and protecting endangered species for future generations to enjoy and appreciate.