Beating the odds: the hard-won resurgence of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas

September 9, 2023

“The story of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas is a great demonstration of the difference between ignorance and awareness. Ignorance leads to destruction while awareness leads to protection.” – Prosper Uwingeli, chief warden of Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Just over a week ago, the 19th Kwita Izina, Rwanda’s annual baby gorilla naming ceremony, took place in Volcanoes National Park. This annual ceremony is a huge source of pride for the primatologists, conservationists, rangers and wardens who work tirelessly to save this fragile species. Every baby mountain gorilla born is a triumphant symbol of awareness over ignorance. Their very existence is a hard-won success against historically poor odds. But that’s Rwanda for you. This tiny country, so full of resilience and heart, continues to beat the odds. 

Some of you have traveled to Rwanda with ROAR AFRICA, trekked through Volcanoes National Park, that mythical rainforest shrouded in mist, and discovered the primordial paradise it holds. The gentle gaze of a hulking silverback acts as a mirror to our own humanity. Suddenly, the world stands still, and an elemental peace settles inside us. As the privilege of bearing witness to one of our closest primate cousins, who share 97% of our DNA, washes over us, one’s heart cracks open. The reality of what it would mean to lose this critically endangered species hits home. To borrow the words of Volcanoes National Park Chief Warden – and my friend – Prosper Uwingeli, you realize that “conservation is life”.  

Although gorilla trekking is a highly rarefied experience, and one tightly controlled by the Rwandan government, the expedition can be made accessible to travelers of all physical abilities (those unable to walk or who struggle to climb can be carried) and fitness levels, and any age above fifteen.

Mountain gorillas in Rwanda

Conservation is life

Whenever we discuss which elements are missing from wildlife conservation efforts with our brave friends in the field, it often comes down to the same answer: lack of government support. In Rwanda, however, it’s a different story altogether. 

It’s no coincidence that this small country – the first nation in the world with a 61% female majority in parliament and 50% of government positions also held by women – is a conservation leader in Africa. Rather, the prevalence of women in leadership positions in Rwanda is proof positive of our firm belief that if African women rise, wildlife will thrive. Some of these leaders were guest speakers at our 2022 Women’s Empowerment Retreat. Within the park itself, we’re seeing an uptick in young women, inspired by veteran guides like Jolie Mukiza, pursuing guiding careers and bringing their own sensitivity and intelligence to this extraordinary experience. “Many women are interested in the opportunities now available in the park, and I want to inspire them to learn,” says Jolie.  

Despite so much national support, the resurgence of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas has been a slow, uphill climb. It is one that requires, in the words of primatologist and Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund CEO Dr Tara Stoinski, “intense conservation”. When we consider the fraught history of these gentle giants, who, since their discovery in 1902 by German colonialists, have been hunted as trophies and poached for bushmeat, that intensity makes sense. Conservation is difficult but the intensity of pioneers like Dr Stoinski, Prosper Uwingeli and Jolie Mukiza burns like a flame, capturing our attention and rallying us toward the conservation stewardship that Africa’s wilderness depends on.

Mountain gorillas in Rwanda | ROAR AFRICA

Collaboration holds the key

There are just 1 063 mountain gorillas left in the world per the most recent census. It is believed that 604 of them inhabit the Virunga Massif, a chain of volcanoes that spreads across the borders of Rwanda, the DRC and Uganda. Rwanda uses a collaborative conservation model that includes every facet of society to tackle the complex threats to the survival of these gorillas. Chief among these threats is loss of habitat, snares and the spread of disease, all of which are caused by the pressures of a rapidly growing population encroaching on the national park. 

But sensible initiatives are helping to reduce human-animal conflict and foster understanding. These include limited, high-cost trekking permits and a tourism-revenue-sharing model that puts profits into the hands of the communities, most of whom are subsistence farmers. In Prosper’s opinion, “The programmes to empower and involve local communities in conservation have paid off. It is from that strong foundation of trust and positive expectations that the vision to expand the park is built.”

The milestone expansion of Volcanoes National Park is intended to benefit everyone, adding 23% more habitat and a larger buffer zone for the growing gorilla population. It will also create an estimated 1 700 jobs, and all those residing within the current buffer zone will be compensated and relocated to newly constructed “green” villages, complete with health services, schools and green belts for farming. It’s a massive undertaking but, as Prosper reminds me, “the spirit of working together is amazing in Rwanda. The plan to expand Volcanoes National Park will catalyze many conservation and community benefits for a long time.” 

Rwanda's mountain gorillas - Greatest Safari on Earth

Travel with purpose

None of this progress would be possible without responsible, respectful, conscious tourism – the foundation upon which ROAR AFRICA is built. How and where we travel matters. That guests’ investment into this transcendent wildlife experience has such a positive impact across the board only enhances the natural high one feels with every step. But the benefit our conscious tourism presence bestows on the gorillas pales in comparison to the life-changing benefit these creatures bestow on us. To observe a habituated gorilla family going about their daily business just as we do, playing, napping, snacking and grooming, is a joy unlike any other. Their playfulness, loyalty, sensitivity, pride and ancient intellect are a potent reminder of our responsibility to share our planet fairly and protect all living things. 

When I asked Prosper what he hopes visitors take away from the experience, we both landed on the same sentiment: “that people come back from gorilla trekking with a sincere appreciation of nature and her vulnerability.” 

I hope that every visitor realizes we are all part of this ecosystem, not apart from it. Together, we can move mountains. Together, we can save a species from needless extinction.


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