By Gilbert Mwijuke
About a century ago, there were over one million rhinos and more than 10 million elephants in Africa. But today, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that only 25,000 rhinos and 470,000 elephants still roam the continent’s savannahs, thanks primarily to poaching.
For many years now, African governments have struggled to combat wildlife poaching. In East Africa, for instance, rhino killings keep increasing as demand for rhino horn, which is thought to have medicinal value in Asia, increases.
Elephants are killed for their prized ivory tusks. According to reports, the going rate for elephant tusks in Asian is about $1,500 per pound while the rhino horn costs about $45,000 — prices that have helped fuel poaching.
In most African countries, poaching is thriving mainly because of corruption, lax law enforcement and war.
Take Akagera National Park, for example. After the 1994 genocide, Rwanda’s biggest national park was left unmanaged, which created room for returning refugees to flock to the park with herds of cattle. This led to human-wildlife conflict and subsequently decimated wildlife populations.
Many animals were killed for different reasons, and lions and rhinos were wiped out completely by 1998 and 2007 respectively.
But now the once-abandoned Akagera National Park is teeming with wildlife again.
According to African Parks, the company that has been running the park since 2009, “Poaching is a threat to the very existence of Akagera National Park… therefore, securing the park and strengthening law enforcement activities with an equipped and motivated team of rangers was priority.”
And African Parks has made tremendous strides in the fight against poaching since the company took over management of Akaggera park close to six years ago. By 2014, animals found poached had decreased by more than 200 per cent. In 2014, poachers killed 26 animals in the park and only three are said to have been killed by end of August last year. The last killing of an elephant was last reported in 2010. Today, more than 8,000 large mammals roam Akagera, including at least seven lions and a herd of about 90 elephants.
The number of mountain gorillas — the endangered species that can only be found in the Virunga chain of volcanic mountains that straddle Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo — declined dramatically in the 1970s due to human encroachment, war, disease and illegal hunting.
A 1981 mountain gorilla census concluded that there were only 254 individuals left in the Virunga massif, and experts feared that the iconic gorillas were headed towards extinction.
But Rwanda has in the past years facilitated the monitoring of each individual in their natural habitat, which has improved their fortunes. Today, the number of mountain gorillas in the Virunga massif is estimated at 900, and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park alone is home to about 400 of them.
Other animal species are also thriving in the park as poaching has been contained.
“Rwanda is a great example in conservation success as local communities are supporting the law enforcement unit around national parks. We have noticed efficient patrol and a reduction in the number of snares that used to kill gorillas and chimpanzees,” says Dr Jean Felix Kinani, a wildlife veterinarian and field epidemiologist at One Health Approach in Conservation (OHAC).
Dr Kinani previously worked as head veterinarian at Gorilla Doctors, an organisation of vets that monitors the health of wild gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park.
“There is no poaching of gorillas, chimpanzees or elephants because the country turns ex-poachers into rangers and local communities around national parks are regularly sensitized about the importance of conserving wildlife,” Dr Kinani adds.
The vet is one of the people who have invested their time and energy in wildlife conservation. Under the auspices of OHAC, Dr Kinani has organised several awareness programmes to sensitise local communities about the importance of wildlife conservation.
On World Wildlife Day this year, the veterinarian and his organisation took it upon themselves to sensitise communities around the Volcanoes National Park about the need to fight “illegal trade of endangered species, especially the great apes in Central and Eastern Africa.”
The other driver of progress is Rwanda’s revenue sharing scheme whereby five per cent of the total revenues collected from national parks fund different projects that benefit local communities. Over the past decade, the revenue sharing scheme has raised Rwf1.83 million, which has been used to build 57 primary schools in 13 districts and funded up to 360 other community projects such as hospitals and cultural centres.
“In general,” says Dr Kinani, “this collaboration suggests that active participation of local communities in decision making is a key strategy for reducing illegal activities.”