Poachers turn gamekeeper to guard Rwandan gorillas

Poachers turn gamekeeper to guard Rwandan gorillas

KINIGI, Rwanda - For four decades Leonidas Barora was a renowned hunter, tracking animals in the lush forests of Rwanda. Now he only fires arrows to impress tourists, and to help protect the wildlife.

Hundreds of ex-poachers have been persuaded to put down their weapons and support efforts to protect endangered mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park, where thick jungle hills are shrouded in mist.

The Virunga mountain range, rising over 4,500 metres (14,800 feet) high along the remote borders of Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, is the last sanctuary in the world of man's giant cousin, which number now around just 800 individuals.

Made famous by the late US zoologist Dian Fossey - murdered in 1985 by suspected poachers - the park faces the same threats she wrote about over two decades ago in her book "Gorillas in the Mist".

Population growth and poverty push people to encroach increasingly deeper into the park to graze their cattle, cut bamboo for building or hunt for food.

For hunters like Barora, now aged 75, hunting had been the only way to earn a living.

"After killing the animals, I traded the meat in the village for beans or potatoes, I didn't make money," said Barora, after shooting off his deadly arrows at a target, to show visitors his old skills.

"I hunted buffalo, antelope and elephant... I never intentionally killed a gorilla because gorillas are like human beings, but I did accidentally kill them in traps I had set."

In the lush highlands of Rwanda's northwest, the "Iby'Iwacu" village - "our heritage" in Kinyarwanda - is a reconstruction of a traditional community, where Barora and other ex-poachers now work to guard the wildlife they once hunted.

Income from tourists provides an incentive to protect the gorillas.

Park rangers say the giant apes are not the main targets of poachers, but the gorillas are instead injured - or killed - in the traps they set for other animals for bush meat.

For Barora, his life changed in 2005 after meeting Edwin Sabuhoro, then one of the national park staff.

500 ex-poachers employed

Traumatised by rescuing a baby gorilla from a poacher, the young man decided he must convince the hunters they had more to gain by protecting the park's wildlife than continuing the killing.

"The poachers were telling me: 'If you lived around the park, your children were hungry, and you know that in the park you could find to eat, what would you?'," Sabuhoro told AFP.

So Sabuhoro resigned, bought land at the foot of the mountains, and went to the poachers, pleading for them to join him.

"He told me: 'Go get the other poachers in the park and tell them I'll give them work, but in exchange you have to stop poaching'," recalled Barora.

Within six months, 500 poachers had come from the forests to join Sabuhoro at the cultural village, building small round huts with mud walls and thatched roof, around a replica of a chieftain's hall.

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