Our work with AWF & gorilla conservation in Rwanda


For more than four decades, AWF has partnered with Rwanda and has been a leader in mountain gorilla conservation. In 1981, AWF was one of the founders of the Mountain Gorilla Project (MGP). For a decade, AWF led MGP in developing anti-poaching programmes, supporting park planning, instituting community education programs, and implementing Rwanda’s ground-breaking gorilla tourism industry.

In 1991, AWF and partners expanded the Rwandan country-level program to create the International Gorilla Conservation Programme—a transboundary programme focused on conservation throughout the species’ entire range. In 2007 AWF, together with USAID, Governors Camp and other investors financed the development of Governors Camp’s Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge , the only luxury lodge in Rwanda wholly owned by a community.

Today, AWF works directly with the Rwandan government and key partners to assess the needs of a growing mountain gorilla population while simultaneously working to improve the livelihoods of people living throughout the Volcanoes National Park region.

Volcanoes National Park is part of the oldest park in Africa. It covers the Rwandan sector of the Virunga Massif—a chain of eight volcanoes that extend across Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mountain gorilla is found only in this transboundary region. Although critically endangered, this gentle giant is the only great ape in the world increasing in population, representing an incredible conservation recovery. This success is the result of decades-long strategic conservation efforts designed to protect gorillas while improving the livelihoods of the Rwandan people living around the park.  

Rwanda’s robust tourism industry generated more than $438 million in 2017. As part of a strong commitment to improving the lives of Rwandans, the government allocates 10 percent of park revenue to communities that live around parks, resulting in a culture supportive of conservation. Rwanda has one of the highest community revenue-sharing schemes in Africa.


Mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) are found only in the Virunga Massif and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  Today, according to the census released in May 2018, the population has grown to more than 1,000 individuals. This is the largest number of mountain gorillas ever recorded in the landscape and represents a 26 percent increase since the previous census in 2010. Regional protected-area authorities who conducted the census attribute the increase to effective and concerted conservation policies, a well-regulated tourism plan, and intensive law enforcement. Mountain gorillas’ remarkable population recovery occurs as Africa sees a rapid decline in overall wildlife numbers— including all other African great ape species.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, their numbers declined rapidly due to poaching and habitat destruction. At its lowest point in the early 1980s, the mountain gorilla population had fallen to under 250 individuals. How to reverse this devastating decline? Through implementation of a creative conservation strategy that included development of an intensive anti-poaching program, holistic park planning, educational outreach to local communities, and design of Rwanda’s cutting-edge gorilla tourism industry, which includes and benefits local communities.

The increase in the population of mountain gorillas is a significant conservation success, but it has led to a key challenge: The gorillas are running out of adequate habitat. Today, gorilla families sometimes roam outside the Volcanoes National Park boundary, putting them in direct conflict with people and exposing them to potentially fatal diseases. These and other threats represent a critical challenge to the long-term viability of the species and the tourism economy.

Recognizing the need for additional habitat, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), in partnership with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), turned its attention to park expansion. In 2017, AWF purchased 27.8 hectares adjacent to Volcanoes National Park, donating the land to the Government of Rwanda to add to the Park. The property is located along the narrowest part of the park—a problem area where gorillas tended to cross the park boundary and risked contact with human settlements. The Rwandan cabinet approved AWF’s donation of the property to RDB for incorporation into the park. On January 10, 2018, a public land-handover ceremony occurred on the property, marking the first expansion of park boundaries in over three decades and establishing a significant precedent for park expansion.

The government of Rwanda’s leadership in conservation and its demonstration that conservation can support economic development and improve the lives of its citizens is a model that should be replicated and one that AWF is proud to support. AWF has pledged to work with RDB to translate this vision into reality. Other key supporters of this innovative RDB conservation vision are Governors Camp’s Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge and Wilderness Safaris’ Bisate Lodge, and AWF is pleased to have them as partners in this endeavor.



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