Walking With Giants – How Rwanda’s Gorilla Conservation Is Community-Fuelled

The African nation offers a blueprint on how community-first wildlife conservation can be used as a driving force for change. One writer takes a hike into the forest, but finds the real joy of Rwanda lies in the eco-conscious commitments of local communities

Nathan, our tour guide, driver and - seven days into a life-affirming trip through Rwanda's remarkable landscapes - confidant and friend, shouts a warning: "Watch out!"

I shriek. Yesterday, hiking a canopy walkway in Nyungwe National Park, I came one boot away from stepping on the tail of an adder. The day before that, chasing chimpanzees through the forest, I'd come face to face with fire ants. "Cowpat!" Nathan shouts, pointing to my immediate left. I look, and laugh. A cowpat? I can handle that.

We're approaching the tail-end of a nine-night trip with Black Tomato across Rwanda. Our final trek is to find a family of gorillas in the famous Volcanoes National Park. It's the part of the trip the group has been most eagerly anticipating: a chance to come within a few metres of the majestic creatures that top out most people's wildlife bucket lists. But, having met with trekkers, guides, chefs, drivers and a whole host of Rwandans during our adventures, it had also become clear to me that a deeper story lay beyond these gentle giants. In Rwanda, gorilla conservation is more than just selfies for social media and big-time TV stars' names splashed across research centres.

Feeling adventurous?

Here, conservation equates to more than just protection. It has become a symphony of community, sustainability and culture in the country. Following the tragic genocide targeting the Tutsi people in 1994, the movement to uplift the country's iconic apes has taken on a national importance. The mountain gorillas have united people, and the land they live in has become a testament to resilience. In short, the nation has transformed a tragedy into triumph, and while the gorillas are the star attraction, the ordinary people involved in their conservation are a supporting cast offering an equally arresting performance.

Rwandan gorilla conservation is grounded in community involvement. Take Umuganda, for example. The mandatory, nationwide community initiative takes place far from the peaks and home of the gorillas, but is wrapped up in the collective wish to preserve and protect the animals and the habitat they live in. Every last Saturday of the month, Rwandans participate in a mass clean-up of public land, clearing streets, cutting grass and trimming bushes in cities and, in rural areas, litter-picking or working on community projects. The legally required volunteering has its roots in a darker history, but in today's Rwanda it has become a representation of community engagement, and respect.

Virunga Volcano Park, Rwanda
Silverback gorilla, Virunga National Park Rainforest, Rwanda

Elsewhere, I was told of the country's 2008 plastic bag ban, which has helped keep single-use litter to a minimum, as well as the expansion of homegrown farming initiatives. Sustainability has become Rwanda's song; the role of community in that, and the pride in protecting the gorillas through these actions, is evident. When I spoke to the people we met on our trip - a blend of government officials, villagers and conservationists - their voices formed a collective heartbeat, echoing the same message: the gorillas are our heritage and their survival is our collective responsibility.

Initiatives such as gorilla trekking allow individuals in the country to become leading participants in preserving the landscapes of their homeland. The night before our own foray into gorilla conservation, we had sat by a roaring stone fire in a snug library bar overlooking the Edenic grounds of One&Only Gorilla's Nest and met a "Gorilla Doctor". The unique encounter, offered exclusively by Black Tomato, saw us sitting fireside, wide-eyed, as we listened to the holistic approach to wellbeing and care provided to the great apes, not only by this small team of doctors but collectively by nearby communities. The non-profit organisation monitors the health of the mountain gorilla population in the area and, where necessary, provides interventions to support the apes' wellbeing. It became clear, listening to this gorilla doctor recount intimate and personal stories, that the distinction between protector and protected was blurring as the community embraced its role as custodians of these incredible creatures. The gorillas' survival had now become intertwined with the doctor's own wellbeing.

One and Only Gorilla's Nest, Rwanda
One and Only Gorilla's Nest, Rwanda

The gorillas in Rwanda embody only a small chapter in the nation's story. It's a small but weighty chapter, though, evident through the naming ceremonies and cultural celebrations the country enacts to pay homage to the deep cultural connection between its people and these majestic creatures. Here, gorilla conservation extends far beyond the realm of its animal inhabitants. The nation's story isn't confined to the hills that host the apes and conservation isn't just a series of actions; it's an anthem shouted across the country, asking its people to safeguard its future.

As travellers step into Rwanda's welcoming embrace, they step into a complex legacy, but one that has always danced with the country's emblematic apes. As this progressive nation continues to intertwine its fate with that of its gorillas, it's not only preserving a species but also shaping a legacy of resilience, empathy and hope. It's an invitation to us all to embrace the threads of community, sustainability and culture that, when woven together, can create a brighter future through heartfelt acts - even if it's just alerting your neighbour to an errant cowpat in their path.

Discovering Rwanda: five must-do experiences

Virunga Volcano Park, Rwanda

Visit Volcanoes National Park

Discover the origins of Rwanda's conservation story in the country's first national park, where mighty mountains and vibrant wildlife paint an unforgettable canvas. Stay at One&Only Gorilla's Nest for surrounds as unforgettable as that first gorilla encounter will be. Hot tip: borrow one of the resort's bikes for a flora-filled cycling tour around its incredible grounds.

Lake Kivu, Rwanda

Sail across Lake Kivu

Embrace tranquillity on Lake Kivu with a stay at the Cleo Hotel. Wake up to breathtaking views, explore the waters, and lose yourself in the serenity of this Lake Como-esque setting.

One and Only Nyungwe House, Rwanda

Get yourself to Nyungwe National Park

Immerse yourself in nature with a stay at this national park, where you're practically able to swing through the trees in pursuit of the local chimpanzees. Encounters with monkeys and jaw-dropping waterfalls are also on the cards. Book into One&Only Nyungwe House for an experience as luxurious as it is life-changing.

Little Switz

Take a coffee plantation tour

Unearth Rwanda's coffee heritage at Kinunu Coffee Plantation, which sits shoreside to Lake Kivu. Tracing the journey of the bean from land to cup, this educational experience includes sipping aromatic brews and understanding the complex history beyond a simple cup o' joe.

Kigali, Rwanda

Spend time in Kigali

Dubbed the "Singapore of Africa" for its pristine, palm tree-lined streets, roaring tech and business hub Kigali is one of the continent's most exciting cities. Start with some history: a tour of the Kigali Genocide Memorial is important, and moving. Then, head to the Kandt House Museum for your natural history fix. Afternoons are best spent at the markets, perusing one-off souvenirs, before you shimmy between the city's many art galleries in search of Rwanda's hottest emerging talent. Bed down at The Retreat, a 20-key, eco-friendly boutique property in the city.

The Lowdown

Black Tomato's Ultimate Rwanda tour starts from £19,950pp, excluding flights.

RwandAir operates weekly flights from London Heathrow. To find out more, and plan an adventure around the Land of a Thousand Hills, head to visitrwanda.com

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