For the first time in three decades the boundaries of Volcanoes National Park have been expanded. It’s hoped that the additional land will ease the pressure on the park’s growing population of mountain gorillas, which increased in numbers from 380 in 2003 to 480 in 2010, an impressive 3.7% annual rise (the next census is due out in March this year).
Currently, the great apes are known to frequently wander outside the park’s borders, which puts them at risk of viruses and diseases transmitted by the surrounding community. While these outbreaks may cause little harm to people they can prove deadly to gorillas due to the primate’s immune systems not being accustomed to fight them. Therefore the larger the park, the larger the buffer zone between the gorillas’ core habitat and that of the local human population.
Despite their growing numbers, mountain gorilla populations are still small enough to warrant the species being listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are currently found in only two areas: the Virunga Massif, which straddles the borders of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, and in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda).
The popularity of encounters with these enthralling primates in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park has also been growing, rising more than 80% since 2007. This figure is all the more impressive given the steady increases in the cost of gorilla permits – in 2017 the price doubled from US$750(£526) to US$1500(£1052) per person. Prior to the latest hike, the park brought in an impressive US$16.4 million in 2016 from park entry fees alone. It’s important to note that this income not only supports the park and the protection of its star species, but also people who live in the area. Some 10% of gorilla tourism earnings are funnelled back into these local communities for the development of needed infrastructure, shared social services, community engagement, empowerment and employment.
The expansion of Volcanoes National Park within the Virungas earlier this month is the direct result of 27.8 hectares of land being gifted to the Rwandan government by the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). The property, previously owned by Serena Hotels, was purchased by the AWF in 2017 with the support of the Annenberg Foundation.