Facing danger at every turn, Edwin Sabuhoro saved endangered wildlife — and impoverished communities — surrounding the famed Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. Now a Ph.D. student at Clemson, he is working to take this effort to other parts of Africa and the world.
Tears almost brought an end to Edwin Sabuhoro’s conservation career — and much, much more. As a park warden at Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park in 2005, Sabuhoro volunteered for a sting operation to catch mountain gorilla poachers. A dangerous mission — this is the same park in which Dian Fossey of “Gorillas in the Mist” fame worked and was killed — he posed as a buyer, faced the poachers alone in the middle of the night and negotiated with them to “buy” a stolen baby gorilla.
The poachers, all young men, led him to the young gorilla who had been kept in a sack for five days with no food. The scene brought Sabuhoro to tears, raising the suspicion of the poachers.
“I told them they were tears of happiness because I had wanted to own a gorilla for so long, and thankfully, they believed me,” he said.
Officials swooped in and caught the poachers, and while Sabuhoro was happy that the mission was successful, he was plagued as well.
“I felt that I had done something wrong and right at the same time,” he said. “I had saved the baby gorilla, but also had betrayed two of my countrymen and lied to them, and now they were in jail.”
So again, facing danger, he visited the poachers’ families. Sabuhoro had to have answers to his burning questions: What drove these youth to poaching? How could it be prevented?
“When I arrived and asked my questions, the father of one of the teens replied with two questions,” Sabuhoro said. “He asked, ‘First, if you are part of a family with nine children who are starving to death, and you know that there are gorillas in the park, and people who will pay for them, would you not poach instead of letting the children die? Second, if you did not have this job, which provides money and the ability to survive, would you not poach yourself?’”
This is a narrative all too common in Rwanda and other East African nations. In a land filled with natural resources — gorgeous landscapes and animal species — its citizens often are marginalized and unable to access these resources in ways that generate income and preserve the resources for future generations. The result? Endangered species and systemic poverty that can lead to starvation and death.
Poaching to Farming
Sabuhoro sought to change the narrative. He resigned his job as a park warden and began studying for his master’s degree in tourism and conservation, focused on finding ways that local communities could directly benefit from the park and the mountain gorillas.
During this time, he also met with 100 poachers to come up with solutions. After consulting with them, Sabuhoro used his life savings — $2,000 — to start a Poachers to Farmers program. The money allowed Sabuhoro to buy land, and poachers rented parcels of land and bought seeds at a reasonable cost to begin farming potatoes.
Sabuhoro left the program in the poachers’ hands while he spent six months in the United Kingdom working on his master’s degree, and the program took off. Farmers had enough resources to feed their families and to share as well.
“When I returned, two of the poachers gave me two sacks of potatoes to thank me,” he said. “It made me emotional, and it inspired me to want to do more.” That something more was the creation of Rwanda Eco-Tours, a company offering educational tourism experiences that contribute to the conservation of Rwanda’s natural resources. Twenty percent of the profits go back to the local communities and to sustainable tourism education efforts.
Rwanda Eco-Tours has led to many enterprises, including Goats for Gorillas, a program inviting tourists to purchase goats for reformed poachers, and an initiative to turn poachers into volunteer park patrollers.