By Justin KAYIRANGA
Hope rises as the Rwanda government, partners and the community join hands in eradicating conservation problems in Gishwati forest.
Part of Gishwati-Mukura National Park, by the 1970s the forest was covering an area of about 28,000 hectares and later it degraded to the extent that it remained with only 600 hectares in 2002.
Among the reasons behind this degradation there is the fact that before 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, the government has decided to take a big part of this protected reserve and turned it into pastures while the remaining part was turned into military exercises area especially in Bigogwe-Nyabihu district.
In addition to this, after the 1994 genocide against Tutsi, some people returned from exile and immediately came to live in that area.
Available information shows that due to the deforestation of the Gishwati forest, serious loss of biodiversity has resulted.
Fauna alone has declined by 99.7%. Flora that plays an important role in the lives of the native people have also seen significant decline. Wild fruits have declined by 93.3%, wild vegetables have declined by 99.6%, and wild medicines used by the native people have declined by 79.9%.
In 2007, with the collaboration of President Paul Kagame, Great Ape Trust, and founder Ted Townsend, initiated Gishwati Area Conservation Program (GACP) a project that was aiming at creating a national conservation park in Rwanda to protect the biodiversity of the Gishwati Forest area and stop some of the rapid degradation.
Later in 2011, GACP suspended its activities, but some Rwandans who worked for the project, committed themselves to continue the Gishwati conservation drive and started the Forest of Hope Association (FHA).
“The main purpose of the continuation of activities, was due to the history of this forest being that it has been degraded to the extent that it remains with only 2% of its surface area.” Says Thierry Aimable Inzirayineza, the FHA coordinator.
He continued saying that “As a result, we have been encouraged to continue our efforts, especially by educating the community near the forest on how to preserve it, because the destruction of this forest is largely due to human activities.”
THE HUMAN-WILDLIFE CONFLICTS MANAGEMENT
With all projects and initiatives implemented in Gishwati forest and park as well, the only solution to tackle human-wildlife conflicts, at time, was only to teach the community near the forest, especially farmers affected by wild animals that used to destroy their crops.
They urged the community to bring their activities a bit far from the forest where animals’ sight can’t reach. This had to go hand in hand with the reminder to the community to stop the illegal activities, namely cattle grazing and beekeeping, within the forest.
However, this could not provide a sustainable solution to the conflicts until the year 2019 the time when Gishwati forest formally became part of Gishwati-Mukura National Park (GMNP) while Rwanda Development Board (RDB) took over the park and started implementing different government policies that benefit communities near all national parks across the country.
“About the conflicts, we found out people did not have enough information about what to do when the animals from the park destroyed their crops. What we did was to start teaching them and show them what they will benefit from living near the park and protecting it.” says Placide N. Nkurunziza, Park’s Community Conservation Warden
“Another thing was that people were not aware what they should do, in terms of claiming their losses, whenever animals from the park damage their properties.” Placide added
Among other policies and initiatives that are being implemented to help people near this park, include Rwanda’s 10% tourism revenue sharing policy that aims at boosting people’s economic development.
So far, about Rwf 450 million have been distributed to community cooperatives and construction of infrastructures like model villages among others…
Mukarurinda Rose, the Gira amata Gishwati cooperative representative and Uwanyirijuru Andre, a member of Ecotourism Gishwati-Mukura cooperative, are among the beneficiaries from the fact that Gishwati is conserved.
In their testimonies, they assert that their life conditions have changed as they would reap a lot thanks to the park, unlike in the past when they went to the forest only to look for firewood.
“For now, it is hard for us to destroy the forest like we used before because we have all benefited from it, and whenever we can find anyone attempting to do so, we would prevent him before he enters.” Says Rose.
Public insurance agency for wild animals’ damages
With the effort of fostering the social protection and wellbeing of citizens, the government of Rwanda has initiated Special Guarantee Fund (SGF), a program that has a mission to compensate victims of road accidents caused by uninsured, non-identified, stolen and confiscated vehicles, as well as victims of wild animal damages.
Statistics provided by this institution (SGF), showed that more than Rwf 1 billion, since 2018, has been paid to compensate 12,503 claims reported countrywide.
Western province, home to Gishwati forest, reported 664 claims among them, 555 have been paid while 9 have been rejected and Rwf 59.4 million paid as compensation since 2018.
With all these efforts and projects invested in Gishwati, it appears to have been productive particularly in the conservation of wildlife as so far the number of wild animals has increased. For example, chimpanzees’ number has increased from 19 in 2012 to 35 in 2022, while the forest area has also increased from 600 to more than 1,500 hectares.
Gishwati is home to chimpanzees which live alongside golden monkeys, L’Hoest’s and Blue Monkeys, with 232 species of bird.