Al Setka, Director of Communications for the Great Ape Trust, hassent us the following press release about a planned ecotourism program that has been unveiled for Rwanda’s ‘Forest of Hope’, which would be used to support local people, chimpanzee conservation and reforestation efforts in Rwanda’s Western Province:
A proposed ecotourism program for the Gishwati Forest brings new hope to Rwanda’s Forest of Hope. Organizers of the Gishwati Area Conservation Program (GACP) recently presented their tourism pilot program to the Rwanda Development Board in Kigali.
Dr. Benjamin Beck, conservation director of Great Ape Trust, which directs and supports GACP, said an income stream from ecotourism is critical for maintaining community support for preservation of the Gishwati Forest in Rwanda’s Western Province.
“Despite their needs for agricultural land and for forest products such as firewood, Gishwati’s neighbors have enthusiastically supported Gishwati’s protection, and deserve additional tangible rewards,” Beck added. “Our program provides benefits to the community by being one of the largest employers in the region, and ecotourism revenues would sweeten the pot even more.”
Beck said the implementation of an ecotourism program would follow four years of GACP success with reforestation and chimpanzee conservation. Today, there are 20 identified East African chimpanzees in the Gishwati Forest – a 54 percent increase from 13 apes in early 2008 when GACP began the chimpanzee field studies and forest restoration initiative. During that period, the protected area of Gishwati Forest has increased an impressive 67 percent from 2,190 to 3,665 acres.
“With that success, the next logical step for Rwanda’s Forest of Hope is a revenue-producing tourism program that benefits the people of Gishwati,” added Beck.
The Gishwati pilot program would include guided half-day forest hikes for small groups of visitors, ensuring a personal and interactive experience for each guest. Tourists would be introduced to Gishwati’s unique bird population, exotic trees, a variety of plant life and several species of primates – including golden monkeys and chimpanzees. Fees for the treks would range from $15 (USD) for Rwandan residents, $35 for foreign residents and $40 for foreign guests.
If tourists want to go beyond the forest’s edge, the Forest of Hope experience will provide additional opportunities. Guided introductions will be offered to a community of historically marginalized people (Batwa) and cooperatives of traditional healers, handicrafts and beekeeping as destinations for experiencing important aspects of traditional Rwandan culture.
Guests would met and interact with cooperative members, learn about their activities and purchase traditional Rwandan handcrafted baskets, handbags, artwork and honey.
“We are including these community-based destinations in the Gishwati pilot ecotourism program because today’s ecotourists are interested in learning about different cultures and are willing to contribute to the development of the communities they visit,” said Madeline Nyiratuza, program director for GACP. “There is also an important interplay between the survival of the Gishwati Forest Reserve and the improvement of livelihoods for the members of these local cooperatives.”
When GACP started in 2008, the life of historically marginalized people depended on the sale of bark of indigenous trees and forest vines, the collection of wild honey, forest fruits and vegetables; and hunting rabbits and fowl. The women in the handcraft cooperative collected their craft materials in the forest while traditional healers gathered medicinal plants.
“These men and women know much about the forest but they need alternatives to what they were getting from there. Ecotourism will help share and document the stories about their connection to the forest while supporting them to improve their livelihoods and to restore the forest,” Nyiratuza said. “People around Gishwati cannot wait to see this ecotourism happen. The hope for tourism revenue is the key element that positively influences the attitudes of Gishwati area residents toward the conservation of this fragment of forest.”
GACP officials would like to begin tours by the end of the year, however, implementation of the program is dependent upon approval by the RDB, which oversees tourism in Volcanoes National Park, Akagera National Park and Nyungwe National Park.
GISHWATI AREA CONSERVATION PROGRAM BACKGROUND
The Gishwati Forest Reserve’s history of deforestation extended over many decades. A forest that covered about 70,000 acres in 1930, was nearly depleted because of ill-advised large-scale cattle ranching projects, resettlement of refugees after the 1994 genocide, inefficient small-plot farming and the establishment of plantations of non-native trees. As a result, the area has been plagued with catastrophic flooding, erosion, landslides, decreased soil fertility, decreased water quality and heavy river siltation – all of which aggravate a cycle of poverty.
In late 2007, the President of Rwanda, His Excellency Paul Kagame, and Great Ape Trust Founder and Chair Ted Townsend of Des Moines, Iowa, pledged at the Clinton Global Initiative conference to create a “national conservation park” in Rwanda to benefit climate, biodiversity and the welfare of the Rwandan people. In early 2008, the Gishwati Forest Reserve in western Rwanda, disregarded for years by international conservation organizations, was chosen as the site of the future park – and the Gishwati Area Conservation Program (GACP) began.
In 2010, the Rwandan Ministry of Lands and Environment entered into a Memorandum of Understanding granting GACP responsibility for managing the protected forest while endorsing the most challenging element of the project – a 30 mile-long forest corridor connecting Gishwati to Nyungwe National Park.
Today, GACP provides secure and meaningful employment to 27 Rwandans, and is an economic engine in the communities surrounding Gishwati. Students and working adults in 15 schools and 10 cooperatives as well as officials of the Rutsiro District government are partnering with GACP to help restore Gishwati.
GREAT APE TRUST BACKGROUND
Great Ape Trust, is a scientific research facility in Des Moines, Iowa, dedicated to understanding the origins and future of culture, language, tools and intelligence, and to the preservation of endangered great apes in their natural habitats. Announced in 2002 and receiving its first ape residents in 2004, Great Ape Trust is home to a colony of seven bonobos involved in noninvasive interdisciplinary studies of their cognitive and communicative capabilities, and to two orangutans. To learn more about Great Ape Trust, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, go to www.GreatApeTrust.org.