To be in the presence of Rwanda’s critically endangered mountain gorillas is a dream for many, often regarded as one of the most thrilling and meaningful wildlife encounters on earth. There is simply no other experience more humbling or privileged than the precious hour you can spend with these majestic primates in the depths of Volcanoes National Park – home to 340 of the last remaining 1000 individuals living in the wild.
Unfortunately, for decades, the species was almost completely wiped out, mostly due to the ravages of civil war, poaching, habitat loss and disease. Today, forest clearing, habitat degradation and the bush meat trade are the main threats towards mountain gorillas, leaving their populations tinkering on the edge of extinction – in fact, their numbers were so low during the 1970s, that they were feared to be extinct by the end of the twentieth century.
Mountain gorilla – photo credit Eric Sambol
The good news is that the global population of mountain gorillas has steadily increased in recent years, with the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) changing their status from critically endangered to endangered in November 2018. The 2018 Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International census for Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and their 2016 census in the Volcanoes National Park, indicates that although the species are still considered massively fragile, their population is growing as a direct result of combined conservation efforts. In fact, mountain gorillas are the only great apes with numbers on the rise.
How ecotourism benefits wildlife conservation
The Volcanoes National Park was previously seen as a resource that belonged to no one; fresh water, game meat and fertile soils resulted in increasing pressures from the surrounding populations who had begun to heavily rely and encroach upon it. The inhabitants of the two sectors bordering the park, Kinigi and Nyange, needed alternative livelihood opportunities and to see the benefits of gorilla tourism.
Agriculture and communities on the periphery of Volcanoes National Park
In 2008, the Governors’ Camp Collection pioneered a conservation concept; one that had never been created before and would eventually be copied the world over. “There’s a growing realisation across the tourism conservation world, that community involvement is critical to the long term survival of protected areas and threatened species” says Dominic Grammaticas, MD of Governors’ camps.
Dominic Grammaticas (far left) at the opening of a series of SACOLA projects in 2018
It became increasingly apparent, that in order to preserve unique and fragile wildlife areas such as the Volcanoes National Park, local inhabitants should and would see, the benefits of the development and future of these areas. In 2008, Rwanda’s first ever community-owned lodge was conceived – Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge.
Developed in partnership with Governors’ Camp Collection, the African Wildlife Foundation and the International Gorilla Conservation Program, the lodge was created to contribute to local development and uplift the lives of vulnerable households, and by doing so, to lessen the economic pressures that were being faced by the park. The ultimate goal is the protection and conservation the mountain gorilla and its precious habitat – and thankfully – it’s working.
Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge was opened in 2008
Uplifting the lives of local communities and lessening economic pressures
Uniquely, this world class lodge is operated by Governors’ as a luxury gorilla trekking base, but the ownership lies with the Sabyinyo Community Livelihood Association (SACOLA), which was simultaneously set up to manage the revenues created by the lodge and to help identify areas or issues that could be improved by using the funds. Each visitor to the lodge contributes a nightly community fee and the lodge itself pays monthly rental fees, which drive socio economic and local conservation initiatives in the neighbourhoods adjacent to the park.
Leonard Harerimana of Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge receives thanks from a new homeowner for the work done to improve her’s and her family’s life
Before and after: A family home generously donated by Sabyinyo’s guest Tiffany Hawes
By the end of February 2021, SACOLA had received a total of USD 3,535,583 million dollars and the monies have greatly improved the lives and well being of those living on the periphery of the mountain gorilla’s habitat. After the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, many women were left widowed and had been ostracised from their communities – they were literally living in isolation and surviving in the forests. SACOLA built houses for genocide survivors and having a home provided them with a sense of ownership, security and stability.
Rwandan widow Karakowke in her new home built by SACOLA
Many were also given a project such as livestock or poultry, to assist in developing a livelihood and independence. SACOLA bought them the chickens and chicken coops, and many of these previously ‘forgotten’ women joined forces and friendships, so that they could support and socialise together – and ultimately overcome their past.
Poultry project set up by SACOLA
One of the core values of the Governors’ Camp Collection is the education and investment into the next generation of caretakers of these amazing and prolific wildlife areas. School children hold the future protection and survival of the planet in their hands; it’s critically important to nurture and encourage their love of conservation while they are still young. Through revenues generated by Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, SACOLA has been able to build classrooms, purchase computers and initiate environmental clubs.
Education on the importance of wildlife conservation
The list of projects created and the number of people and families that have been positively impacted by the lodge and the SACOLA Trust, after many years of successful operation, are now too extensive to list individually – which is a good thing of course. Electricity supply, schools, computer labs, the construction of roads, bridges, drainage systems, water points and the distribution of water tanks – so that people can collect the rainwater from their roofs – are just some of the many areas developed and improved in the villages.
Computer labs have been set up by SACOLA
Several agricultural projects have been established including pig and sheep farming. There is huge support for Rwanda’s ‘one cow per one poor family’ program through the donation of hundreds of cows, which is aimed at cutting poverty in rural areas. A number of guests at the lodge have been kind enough to donate towards this initiative, completely transforming the lives of vulnerable families by alleviating food insecurity and also reducing ‘hoofprints’ greenhouse gas emissions.
Visitors are welcome to support and get involved in SACOLA’s community projects
Health centers have been built and health insurance secured for especially poor members of the community, along with payment of school fees for children whose parents are mostly concerned about where tomorrow’s meal will come from. From a conservation perspective, anti-erosion bamboo has been planted along natural waterways and the constant maintenance of the park boundary’s stone wall is a full time job for many.
Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is currently very focused on supporting the unmarried mothers of the Turenguzebima Sewing Project in the town center. Most of these women have been scorned from society due to their children born out of wedlock. Often, the ladies have been rejected from their family home, leading to extreme hardship and poverty. The center was constructed by SACOLA and not only provides the women with a safe place to work, but also gives them a second chance at life.
The Turenguzebima Sewing Project supports single mothers
Some very clever ideas and products have stemmed out of this very nearly, self sufficient business; ever since Covid-19, the ladies have been making face masks for those who cannot afford them as well as reusable sanitary pads which assists young girls in the area to stay in school while indisposed. Anyone can help us continue with these projects by donating an amount of any kind, which goes towards materials, equipment and training the women. If you would like to get involved, please write to us and we would be happy to provide you with additional information, or if you would like to make an instant donation please do so via the Governors’ Camp Collection Community and Conservation Trust’s secure online payment portal.
Sabinyo Silverback Lodge: A conservation success story
Overall, the main goal has been to reduce the reliance and burden of communities on the natural resources of Volcanoes National Park, so that Rwanda’s mountain gorillas have the best chance of survival. Not only has it taken the dedication of small, non-profit organisations, a handful of individual researchers and conservationists – but also a monumental country-wide effort, to help save the iconic mountain gorilla and its natural habitat.
Prosper Uwingeli, Chief Park Warden for Volcanoes National Park, sums up the remarkable thirteen year Sabyinyo-SACOLA relationship in his own words: “Apart from the park tourism revenues sharing scheme, the collaboration with SACOLA has provided added community benefits at the Volcanoes National Park, that no other partnership has done so far. As we celebrate the increase of the mountain gorilla’s population and continue investing in projects to sustain achieved results on both wildlife conservation and community livelihoods transformation, SACOLA continues and will continue to be, the living model to be emulated”.
Prosper Uwingeli with Governors’ Camp Collection Community and Conservation Manager, Alisa Karstad
After the ramifications of a worldwide pandemic such as Covid-19, sustainable and responsible tourism ideologies have really been brought to the forefront of holiday inspiration and research – and necessity for that matter. Now, more than ever, travelers want to be certain that their trip has a meaningful and positive impact on local communities and the areas that they are privileged enough to visit.
Meaningful travel experiences and supporting local communities
“The gorillas are on everyone’s bucket list and for anybody coming to see them, it’s important to realise that your dollars spent, is what has created the environment that allows the success of this species to continue” ~ Philip Mason, manager of Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge.
Governors’ Camp Collection extends special thanks always to the African Wildlife Foundation, the Rwandan Development Board and Gaylord and Cathy Layton of Tayside Associates LLC for the vital role they played in the development of Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge.
By Jessica Savage for Governors’ Camp Collection.