Rwanda: How rehabilitated poachers became champions saving Volcanoes National Park wildlife

Apr 21, 2022 | News

By Michel Nkurunziza, New Times

When recently visited “Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village” in Kinigi sector of Musanze District, the journalist was welcomed by 83-year-old Leonidas Barora in a traditional dance (Intore dance).

Barora is a former poacher who used to hunt and kill wildlife in Volcanoes’ National Park which has an area of 160 km² in North-West Rwanda accommodating different animals including gorillas that are generating billions of tourism revenues. 

The cultural village promoting community-based tourism reforms and helps former poachers and communities around the park to generate money for their families. 

The community-based tourism initiative provides the former poachers with conservation incentives and support community enterprise development and livelihood-based projects among others. 

The village was founded by Edwin Sabuhoro, a local conservation researcher who was involved in rehabilitating  former poachers into eco-warriors to save mountain gorillas.

Eco-warrior is a person who argues against and tries to stop activities that damage the environment.

Barora, the former poacher in the gorilla habitat told Doing Business that he killed a big number of wildlife animals including buffaloes, antelopes, duikers among others in the chain of all five volcanoes namely Muhabura, Sabyino, Gahinga, Bisoke and Kalisimbo located in Rwanda’s volcano national park.

“I started to hunt in 1963 when I was 25-years-old and single. I killed 30 buffaloes and 20 elephants. I can’t know exact number of duikers and antelopes because there are too many,’ he narrated.

The reformed former poacher, and a father of five, testified that, currently, he is among those who are striving for saving wildlife he used to poach for meat.

The intensified battle to curb poaching was launched by the government after 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
“I was reformed by the conservation programme from which I am benefitting a lot,” he said.

Monthly Wage

Every month Barora, from a historically marginalised community (pygmies), who spent 35 years in poaching, is paid about Rwf30, 000 wage by the community based tourism initiative he works for via traditional dance (Intore dance) and oral storytelling.

The now eco-warrior has managed to buy a piece of land which he didn’t have before and he is also in a savings association that helps him to reap about Rwf280,000 after a certain period.

“With my savings, I recently bought two Rwf60, 000 sheep and leased a tillable land worth Rwf40, 000 on which I grow pyrethrum,” he said

He said that one of his children has managed to pursue higher education. “He has now completed education and he is pastor in Pentecost church. Although others didn’t complete their education they have benefitted from the conservation efforts,” he said.

He said the income he is generating is also enabling his family to buy the meat instead of going back to hunt into the forest.

“When we identify those who are still poaching, we warn them of punishing laws and urge them to create income generating activities instead of continuing to endanger wildlife that generate revenues for the country through tourism, “he said.

Business Start-Ups Support

Jean Bosco Hagumimana, is the guide at the cultural village that was established by Gorilla Guardians – a conservation non-profit organization.

He said that the incentives to reduce poaching among community members around the park come from different community-based tourism initiatives, arts and crafts, basket weaving, supported individual business start-ups, education and health support, clean water supply as well as support to farming income generating projects among others.

“When tourists visit the cultural village, they experience traditional Rwandan culture such as drumming, traditional dancing, launching spears, and King’s home among others. So, the founder of the village gathered the former poachers since 2005 to be reformed into saviors of the wildlife and be supported,” he explained,

He said that the organization started with turning 300 poachers into eco-warriors, the number that has increased to over 1,000 currently.

Tapping into Tourists’ Market

Jean Damascene Rwubahiriza stopped poaching activity about 15 years ago.

He has now joined “Iteganyirize Cooperative:” Save for yourself” cooperative which is generating income as an alternative source of income instead of poaching.

“We make and sell handicrafts such as crafts made in gorillas’ images, sticks and other handcrafts. I trade for the cooperative and get

Rwf52, 000 monthly. With my own handicrafts, I generate over Rwf160, 000 per month,” he said.

He said he has managed to build a decent residential house and a commercial house all worth over Rwf20 million. “I also bought a big piece of land where I grow different crops. This has motivated us to stop poaching,” he said.

The Role of Revenue Sharing Scheme

He said that the revenue sharing scheme has motivated a big number of people to stop poaching. “When you get livestock and start an income generating project you can no longer go back for poaching,” he said.

By 2019 before Covid-19 broke out in Rwanda, over Rwf5.2 billion had been distributed by Rwanda Development Board (RDB) to 647 community-based projects since 2005.

The revenue share programme, initiated by the Government, aims to guide investment in the areas surrounding the various national parks in Rwanda by ensuring that 10 percent of all park revenues are given back to the communities including former poachers.

According to the Rwanda Development Board, re-opening tourism activities by boosting domestic tourism is the new normal and could increase funding to the revenue sharing scheme.

Prosperi Uwingeri, the Chief Park Warden of Volcanoes National Park, said that among 12 sectors along Volcano national park, there are over 40 cooperatives with over 5,000 members that play a role in conserving the park and benefit from revenue Sharing scheme.

In 2019, Volcano National Park   accounted for 91.7 per cent or $26 million of the $28.5 million generated revenues from three parks with the great contribution of Gorilla trekking.

70% Reduction in Poaching Cases

Uwingeri said that cases of illegal logging and poaching are still threats to the park despite drastic reduction.

“Zero poaching is a process, it is a journey. We know what we need to do to achieve zero poaching but we have not yet achieved it. We are from 100 percent to a kind of 70 percent reduction in poaching and we are heading to 100 percent reduction soon”, he noted.

He said that park rangers are still recording cases of poaching and illegal logging in the park although it is not at an alarming rate.

However, he noted poachers have changed poaching tactics compared to previous years. “We also arrest people with traps to kill buffaloes and kobs. Despite few poaching and logging cases, it shows that there is still a journey and need for conservation awareness,” he said.

He said the traps are also dangerous to other animals such as gorillas in the park despite not being targeted.

“We have to work with communities around the park to intensify the fight against poaching and illegal logging. We are working with cooperatives in the fight of which some members were once poachers,” he said.

According to a recent study, the main causes of poaching include ignorance, poverty, culture, corruption, population growth and commercial purposes.

The study shows that thanks to strategies in fighting poaching, the annual poaching cases have decreased from 1,000 in 2018 to 600 snares in 2020.

In the same year only three poachers from Kinigi and Shingiro Sectors were arrested.

According to findings, the introduction of a revenue sharing scheme has contributed to the reduction of poaching and human wildlife conflicts in the volcano area.

However, the study points out that poaching cases are still high in the Shingiro Sector compared to other sectors close to the Volcano National Park.

New Law on Combating Poaching

The newly amended law on biodiversity and wildlife has recommended penal sanctions against poachers and those who engage in trafficking of wildlife as a way of protecting biodiversity and wildlife.

The law prescribes a prison sentence of between one and three years for a person convicted for poaching, injures, takes, harasses or breeds a wild animal and a fine of between Rwf500,000 and Rwf1 million.

If the offence is committed against critically endangered or endangered species, the penalty is a term of imprisonment of not less than five years but not more than 10 years and a fine of not less than Rwf5 million but not more than Rwf10 million.

For a person convicted for possession, transferring, selling, buying or using a wild animal is liable to imprisonment of not less than three years but not more than five years and a fine of not less than Rwf1 million but not more than Rwf5 million.

When the offence referred to is committed against critically endangered or endangered species, the penalty is between five and 10 years in prison and a fine of between Rwf5 million and Rwf10 million.

According to the law, a person convicted for removing animal species from their habitat, harming, transporting, or hawking them is liable to a term of imprisonment of between six months and two years and a fine of not less than Rwf500,000, but not more than Rwf1 million.

In case it’s committed against endangered species, the jail time increases to between three and five years while the fine is between Rwf2 million and Rwf5 million.

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