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Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Home to Africa’s Mountain Gorillas

In a desperate attempt to save Africa’s dwindling wildlife from poachers, ranger John Kahekwa of the Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park set up a community-based conservation programme in the hope of encouraging ecotourism.

Originally a tracker at the park, Kahekwa was responsible for taming lowland gorillas, in a way. He would ‘habituate’ them to the presence of humans so tourists could visit and became so successful that he could eventually pick out and name around 155 animals. He now looks after 600,000 hectares of prime mountain forest on the east side of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has been recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1980 and more unfortunately as a World Heritage Site in Danger since 1997.

As local populations grew the fine line between people and animals became less distinct. Traps laid for game sometimes trapped gorillas and other animals and poaching was rife. ‘Keep Out’ signs were ignored and when, in 1993, Maheshe, the adult silverback depicted in blockbuster movie Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey, was killed there was wide-spread agreement that Kahuzi-Biega was just not working as a wildlife reserve.

Many poachers were repeat offenders and when caught red-handed and asked outright why they did it, the animal hunters simply replied, “There aren’t any jobs.” They needed to make money somewhere the primeval need to provide for their families far outweighed their love of the local wildlife.

So, using his own savings, all $6,000 of it, John Kahekwa set up the charity Pole-Pole (meaning slowly-slowly, or ‘gently does it’, in Swahili) and gave the worst poachers in the area the opportunity to retrain as woodcarvers. Now you can buy amazing carvings of eastern lowland gorillas, done by men who were once killing them.

He also provided the wives with jobs as he knew they dabbled in the poaching business too and bought sewing machines so they could make shirts to wear and sell.

Eventually, Pole-Pole built schools so locals could learn about their precious surrounding habitat, more trees were planted with help of donor money, not only to supply wood for carving but for cooking and building.

It’s not easy though, the area is still in conflict and regularly sees rebels and insurgents passing through, there is wide-spread looting and the poaching hasn’t stopped completely but Mr Kahekwa remains positive. “I love Kahuzi-Biega, and I love my community,” he says. “The park belongs to the community, and I want them to work together, so that they can both flourish – and I think it can be done.”

Source: The Independent