Hope for Gorillas in a New Decade
9th January By Imogen Ward
As part of our continued commitment to make Rwanda the focus of our company giving in 2019/2020, we are pleased this month to support the work of The Gorilla Organization (formerly the Digit Fund established by the respected primatologist Dr Dian Fossey).
The charity works on the frontline of gorilla conservation and has helped build a better future for gorillas and the people they live alongside in Rwanda and neighbouring countries. Here we profile the organisation’s Director Jillian Miller and its pioneering and award-winning community-based projects that place conservation and poverty alleviation side by side.
Jillian’s conservation work started in the early 1990s with a visit to Rwanda with a news crew to the region where Dr Dian Fossey had based her research and from where Dr Fossey had alerted the world to the plight of the gorillas before her tragic death in 1985.
War had already broken out in Rwanda – a precursor to the genocide – when the team arrived. Academics and scientists working in conservation had left the country or were nowhere to be found. Dian Fossey’s research site, Karisoke, where the team spent the night, had been destroyed.
Jillian’s visit was the beginning of The Gorilla Organization’s work to support Fossey’s anti-poaching patrols and to restart conservation in the country. Within six months Jillian and her team identified 100 local organisations still working in Rwanda who previously hadn’t had any recognition or funding, creating a conservation network that would continue to work throughout the war knowing it would end eventually and that people would return to the country.
A new approach to conservation: helping people and animals
The group also recognised that scientific research alone was not enough to save the gorillas and that communities would have to be involved, to tackle the root causes of threats such as habitat loss and poaching. The Gorilla Organization was pioneering in developing the concept of community-based conservation, supporting the raising of the standard of living for people living around gorilla habitat, so that they do not have to rely on the natural resources found in the gorillas’ forest home. This ground-breaking approach has now been adopted by conservation groups worldwide.
After the genocide, The Gorilla Organization raised funds to continue its work which has now expanded into neighbouring countries. As well as funding more traditional conservation activities such as rainforest rangers and education work, the charity’s projects include sustainable organic farming, tree planting (over two million so far) and gorilla-friendly beekeeping, all of which give impoverished communities the opportunity to earn a sustainable income.
Women are the beneficiaries of several of the charity’s projects, giving them increased independence and confidence to escape the situation where, in many parts of Africa, women and girls suffer disproportionately high rates of violence and extreme poverty.
The result of these programmes is that communities living near national parks now have land and expertise to farm, they have fuel-efficient stoves and they can afford to send their children to school; children who may become teachers, conservationists or economists when they are older but who will all be legitimate forest guardians of the future. A cycle of poverty and overuse of natural resources has been broken.
Of critical importance today is The Gorilla Organization’s work in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), home to the critically endangered Grauer’s (or eastern lowland) gorillas, with fewer than an estimated 3,800 left in the wild, down from 16,900 in the 1990s. The gorilla population faces huge challenges in the country, with around four million people living within a day’s walk of the national parks and who rely on its resources for charcoal and firewood, together with additional threats from political instability and Ebola which has already proved fatal to gorillas.
The impact of involving communities in conservation
Jillian and her organisation’s work in the region has shown the success of community-based conservation as a catalyst for change. The charity still funds some work in Rwanda (and indeed recently made a donation to the Gorilla Doctors, an international team of veterinarians in the country providing direct, hands-on care in the wild), but the country now has a thriving tourist economy bringing in vital funds for conservation and people.
For more than two decades, The Gorilla Organization has continued to work through civil war, famine and natural disasters. They estimate that there are around half a million beneficiaries of their programmes and their message, most of them living in some of Africa’s poorest regions.
There is also now an entire movement that didn’t exist before to protect these charismatic animals. And last year, there was the welcome news that the mountain gorilla subspecies has come off the critically endangered list, with numbers up from just 650 individuals in the wild when Jillian first visited Rwanda to more than 1,000 today.
Thanks to the work of The Gorilla Organization and other groups and local communities that support the power of conservation, long may that trend continue.
To support or find out more about this pioneering charity please visit www.gorillas.org.