Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda) (AFP) – The huge male nibbles an appetizing bamboo shoot, then lies down calmly and even lets out a little gas noisily: he doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by the mooing of the cows and the beating of the shovel farmers, which can be seen fifty meters away.
This “silver” gorilla and his family evolve that day very close to the dike that marks the end of the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, a sanctuary where the great apes are now confined.
Rwanda shares the famous Virunga massif with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Located in the heart of the densely populated Great Lakes region, this chain of eight majestic volcanoes is also, along with Uganda’s Bwindi Forest, the only habitat in the world for mountain gorillas, whose population is increasing.
[Hausse des populations de baleines et gorilles des montagnes selon l’Union mondiale pour la nature]
“In the 2010 census, there were 880 mountain gorillas. In 2015, another census showed that there were 1,063″ in total, forest ranger Felicien Ntezimana proudly told AFP, before starting the walk that, through fertile fields, leads to the misty forest where the mythical animals live.
This primate with superb dark, thick and glossy fur has been considered “endangered” since 2018 and no longer “critically endangered” like all other great apes.
Mountain gorillas have come a long way. In the 1980s, when famed American primatologist Dian Fossey was murdered here, the Virunga Mountains dropped to just 250 after decades of relentless poaching.
Since then, their number has quadrupled, in particular thanks to increased security and community involvement. In Rwanda, 10% of tourism revenue (i.e. $25 million pre-Covid) goes to residents in the form of projects and 5% through a compensation fund.
“Hated” in the past, primates are now dubbed “those who bring milk”, laughs a former resident of Musanze, a city bordering the park.
“Tourists spend money on them and that money comes back to us in the form of food, housing and good living conditions,” says Jean-Baptiste Ndeze.
This spectacular resurrection is not without consequences.
With around twenty families known and monitored by the Rwandan authorities (against six 25 years ago), density has increased. And these primates accustomed to humans, therefore, venture into their neighbors.
“We more often see gorillas coming out of the park and looking for food outside (…). They also spend more time outside the park and tend to stray further from the edge,” says Felix Ndagijimana, national director of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
The herculeanly strong ape, which can weigh up to 200 kilograms, is vulnerable to human diseases such as flu, pneumonia or even Ebola.
[RDC: décès d’une gorille célèbre du parc des Virunga]
Density presents other threats within the sanctuary itself. Interactions between these families have greatly increased and can trigger fights, during which babies are at great risk.
The Fund, concerned about the slowdown in population growth, carried out a study ten years ago on a specific area of the park: it concluded in particular that there had been a 5-fold increase in the number of “infanticides”. ”.
“Infanticide is a big problem because it has a huge downward impact on the progress of the population”, laments Felix Ndagijimana.
This density problem is now much more significant in Rwanda, where due to demographic pressure the park’s surface was cut in half in the 20th century.
Only one gorilla family lives on the Ugandan part of Virunga, and the park is “huge” on the Congolese side, notes Benjamin Mugabukomeye of the International Gorilla Protection Program, a regional organization.
[Les gorilles, une des 200 espèces menacées par les conflits, selon l’UICN]
Rwanda has decided to increase the surface area of its park by 23% over the next five to ten years. An ambitious project, which should start in 2022 and will require the restoration of the forest, but also the displacement of 4,000 farming families.
“It is a process that we are carrying out with great caution”, insists Prosper Uwingeli, director of the park, noting that feasibility studies and precise mapping of the families involved are in progress.
Kigali offers compensation, but also the construction of “model villages”, the prototype of which emerged from the ground in Musanze. In addition to a huge school and an egg factory, the brick buildings house impeccable apartments, with furniture included.
In this country where the regime is hailed for its development projects but also criticized for its authoritarianism, officials say extension is a “responsibility” for the apes and an “opportunity” for humans.
But on the edge of the park, a few steps from the huge gorilla, a peasant digging his black earth is worried.
[Yann Arthus-Bertrand : « le jour où l’un des gorilles de Dian Fossey a soigné mon lumbago »]
Gorillas “are not a problem” sweeps this potato grower.
But “this place is very fertile, it allowed me to feed my family”, he adds. “Where they want to relocate us, the soil is not so fertile. Therefore, the money they give us must be significant for our livelihood. »