Inside Rwanda's Gorilla Guardian Village, former poachers protect the endangered species.
cross rugged mountain slopes and through thick stands of bamboo, a small group of khaki-clad tourists tramps into Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Their trained guides and porters lead them by hand through 8-foot grasses and clingy vines, speaking only in whispers until, at last, the stoic face and shoulders of a silverback peer out from the foliage.
Each year, some 35,000 tourists head to Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park to observe, photograph, ooh and ahh over critically endangered mountain gorillas, descendants of the animals studied and made famous by Dian Fossey and Gorillas in the Mist. Once the expeditions are over, it’s natural for travelers to visit Gorilla Guardians Village, a cultural center staffed almost entirely by former poachers.
Gorilla Guardians Village includes a dozen thatched cream- and ocher-colored buildings, each attended by a local interpreter who explains traditional Rwandan culture: historic healing practices, traditional food preparation, and the fermentation of Rwanda’s beloved banana beer. In a grassy courtyard, instructors offer archery lessons, and Intore dancers perform Rwanda’s celebratory Lion Dance. Near the exit, a craft shop sells brightly colored, hand-woven baskets and whittled gorilla statues.
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Besides shedding light on Indigenous Rwanda, Gorilla Guardians’ chief goal is to provide strong incentives for its local interpreters to conserve the animals they once hunted. The project is the brainchild of Edwin Sabuhoro, a Rwandan who was struck by the horror of poaching while serving as a park ranger at Volcanoes National Park. Tasked with preserving the well-being of mountain gorillas, Sabuhoro visited a community adjacent to the national park for answers in 2005.
“I asked them why are they killing gorillas?” said Sabuhoro in a 2015 interview with CNN, who named the young Rwandan a CNN Hero. “An old man looked at me and said, ‘Your kids are starving to death. Would you poach to feed your family? People are trying to survive.’”
Hearing of the locals’ dire economic situation proved eye-opening for Sibuhoro. He organized a two-pronged nonprofit program to convert poachers into conservationists, theorizing that if Rwandans had alternate means of earning money, they would quit the illegal hunting.
First, the program offered seed money to families to start small farms for subsistence or profit. Second, Sibuhoro developed Gorilla Guardians Village, which would not only illuminate local culture but would raise money to pay interpreters and, consequently, to conserve the gorillas.
Emmanuel Harerimana works as a professional guide at Volcanoes National Park and is a direct beneficiary of the Gorilla Guardians program. The oldest child in a family of nine and a native of northwestern Rwanda, Harerimana’s family, like most of his neighbors, regularly struggled with food insecurity before the creation of the nonprofit. And like them, his family resorted to poaching in the national park grounds for food.
“As the firstborn, I often went into the mountains to hunt with my dad,” said Harerimana. Although the pair targeted buffalos, antelopes, and bushbucks (hunting any animals within the national park is illegal), sometimes the traps Harerimana and his father set inadvertently caught gorillas. “It was so sad,” says Emmanuel. “It still makes me feel bad when I look back.”
The Gorilla Guardians nonprofit launched just as Harerimana approached early adulthood. He worked alongside his parents, first as they planted their first potato crop and, while they waited for the potatoes to mature, as an interpreter at Gorilla Guardians Village. The program had an immediate impact on his family’s finances.
And the nonprofit’s success snowballed. Decreased pressure on gorillas resulted in larger animal populations, which in turn boosted the number of tourists to Volcanoes National Park and to nearby Gorilla Guardians Village. In 2019, mountain gorillas bore the distinction of being the world’s only species of great apes experiencing population growth, up 26% from 2010. According to the WWF, that success is attributed to tourism-affiliated conservation programs like Gorilla Guardians.
From a childhood that included poaching, Emmanuel moved on to become a cultural interpreter at Gorilla Guardians Village and to his current role as a paid guide and naturalist at Volcanoes National Park, a profession that he describes as his dream job. He conveys the natural beauty and environmental fragility of this corner of Rwanda as he leads tourists on hiking, mountain climbing, gorilla, and golden monkey expeditions. Harerimana estimates that 70% of his personal income comes from tourism activities. The remaining 30% comes from his ongoing farming operation.
“We have so many in my village here who have really turned their heads from poaching and illegal activities toward tourism and conservation,” says Harerimana. According to Gorilla Guardians, 40 former poachers have joined the cultural village as interpreters. Other locals have opted for tourism-related jobs as national park guides, porters, artisans, or restaurant and hotel staff.
Harerimana hopes that the practice of converting poachers to conservationists can be replicated in neighboring countries with poaching problems: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Burundi, and Tanzania.
“I’m very happy to be part of tourism and conservation,” he says. “We are 100% living better lives than we were when we were poaching.”