For the second time in three years, Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is slated for expansion to serve its growing mountain gorilla population. The announcement signals hopeful news for the endangered species, which was once projected to be extinct by the millennium.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are currently around 1,000 mountain gorillas, a subspecies of the eastern gorilla, left on the planet. They’re concentrated in the highlands bordering Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than half of the world’s population inhabits the Virunga Mountains, where Volcanoes National Park is located in northwestern Rwanda, alongside Virunga National Park in Uganda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in the DRC. The rest are found in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Though the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) still classifies mountain gorillas as an endangered species, the past decade has revealed a positive trend for the survival of the great apes. Research from 2016 recorded a 20 percent growth in the Virunga range’s mountain gorilla population since 2010, rising from 480 to 604 gorillas. Accordingly, in 2018, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) approved a $200 million expansion of Volcanoes National Park.
The aim of this project was threefold: to accommodate the great apes, to increase tourism, and to create new infrastructure and opportunities for local communities. Now, the RDB and Rwandan government have announced plans to extend the park by an additional 40 square miles.
The forthcoming expansion will serve two purposes: Roughly 15 square miles will be added to the park to prevent conflicts over territory and resources among the different gorilla groups that live there, thereby discouraging gorillas from leaving the park. The remaining square mileage will create a “buffer zone” between the park and its surrounding communities. Agriculture and agroforestry, a land-management system that reaps the biological benefits of integrating trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming practices, will be permitted in this approximately 25-square-mile zone.
It remains to be seen how the latest expansion project will impact tourism, but more mountain gorillas likely means more gorilla safaris. Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park is one of the primary drivers of tourism to Rwanda, and permit sales, which cost $1,500 per person, are an essential source of revenue for the Rwandan government.
It’s a considerable expense for travelers, but walking among Volcanoes National Park’s mountain gorillas is one wildlife adventure that’s worth squirreling away to experience. Beyond bushwhacking through the dense foliage of the Virunga Mountains to observe gorillas in their natural habitat, park visitors can also walk in the footsteps of famed primatologist Dian Fossey by visiting the Karisoke research camp, where she lived among Rwanda’s great apes for nearly 20 years. Some safaris also track the park’s golden monkeys, which coexist with gorillas and other wildlife such as buffalos, hyenas, and 178 bird species.
Travel to Rwanda, like everywhere, has been touch-and-go during the pandemic. Not only have restrictions been imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 among humans, but precautionary measures have also been implemented to prevent transmission to the great apes. They were discovered to be susceptible to infection after three gorillas in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park tested positive for the coronavirus.
Though the US State Department currently warns against travel to Rwanda due to COVID-19, flights to Kigali International Airport have resumed, and the country is officially open for tourism. Now may not be the ideal time to book a last-minute gorilla safari, but with the encouraging growth of the mountain gorilla population in recent years, tourism is bound to surge once the expansion project is complete and gorilla trekking is safe for all parties involved.
Start saving up now because when that time comes, it’s going to be pretty magical to see how Rwanda’s great apes thrive in the newly extended Volcanoes National Park.
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