Poachers Turned Park Rangers: Local Profits In Saving Rwanda's National Parks

A Rwandan guide at the Volcanoes National Park.
A Rwandan guide at the Volcanoes National Park.
Venant Nshimyumurwa

GAHUNGA - Not long ago, the communities bordering Rwanda’s three national parks were the biggest threat to their survival. The villagers poached animals and illegally exploited the forest. But today, locals collaborate with the tourism industry and take part in the protection of biodiversity while improving their living standards.

Much of the credit goes to a new revenue-sharing scheme, with five percent of tourism-generated revenue pumped back into the surrounding towns and villages. The new income has allowed locals to replace poaching with tourist-related businesses and other activities linked to the parks’ conservation.

In 2011, the tourism department of the Rwandan Development Board (RDB) spent at least $66,500 on individual and community projects near the tourist sites. Projects range from building classrooms to buying cows for local residents. More than 50 cows have been distributed to villagers in the northern Nyabihu district, near the Volcanoes National Park.

Since 2005, the RDB, that manages Rwanda’s national parks, has set aside five percent of the park's admittance fees paid by tourists for local communities, financing more than 220 projects. Members of parliament recently recommended that the percentage be brought up to 10 percent to boost development in the communities bordering the parks.

Today, foreign tourists must pay a $750 admission fee to enter the Volcanoes National Park, known for its mountain gorillas. For a Rwandan, that price is $50. In 2010, the park welcomed almost 30,000, mostly foreign visitors – generating significant resources for local development projects.

Poaching and honey harvesting

In 2008, a community trust called SACOLA (Sabinyo Community Livelihoods Association) was created in Kinigi, in the northern Musanze district. Its aim is to bring communities around the Sabyinyo volcano to work together for sustainable conservation and drive socio-economic development in the area. It has about 50,000 members, many of whom are former poachers and honey harvesters.

The results are remarkable: the villagers have a new cultural center, water tanks, new houses and plots of land. SACOLA owns a luxury tourist lodge, whose profits they reinvest directly in local development and conservation initiatives.

The bamboo craft center in Gahunga, in the northern Burera district, is another positive initiative. The aim of the project is to help local communities to cultivate bamboo. The RDB tourism department initiated the project to end the conflicts between the Volcanoes National Park and the neighboring villagers, who used to cut the park’s bamboo.

The center employs those who were destroying the park just a few years ago. “I was always at risk of being shot by a park ranger when I cut the park’s bamboo. But now I’m happy, I work at the center,” says Serugendo Bavugirije, a former poacher. "Conservation has been good to me."

In this center, employees make bamboo bracelets, beds, chairs and decorative elements. “We don’t need to go to the park anymore, because now we have access to bamboo. And now we are making money,” adds Serugendo.

The tourism department's employees used to try and secure the park border to protect it and control illegal activity, but current methods are more efficient. “We want the communities bordering the park to take advantage of the revenue generated by the local natural environment. It’s a way of integrating them into the park conservation process, to make them more responsible by working with them closely,” explains Prosper Uwingeri, head of conservation at the Volcanoes National Park.

According to SACOLA President Pierre Célestin Nsengiyumya, the trust has built 20 homes for the homeless and financed the high school education of 20 children from poor families in the Kinigi and Nyange areas. It has also distributed 50 cows to the region’s poorest and built six schools in the Musanze district. Finally, it contributes to the region’s electrification program.

Near the western province’s Nyungwe forest, there are four co-ops that are fighting poverty. “Before, the villagers would follow tourists and beg for money. Today, instead, they sell art and do traditional dances,” says Uwizeyimana Donatille, a manager at the Friends of Nyungwe co-op.

All around Rwanda’s national parks, activities are being developed to enable local residents to live off the resources generated by the parks without destroying what makes them rich and attractive.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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