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.
It takes a village
One of the most transformative efforts was the creation of the Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village in 2006, which allows Volcanoes National Park tourists to experience local customs of cooking, sewing, dancing, native medicine, and making tools and crafts, among other tasks.
Built by Sabuhoro and local community members with loans that Sabuhoro secured, the village now supports itself and the community though admission proceeds and souvenir sales, which are divided between community development projects and direct support of local villagers.
In just two years, the community saw a 40 percent decrease in illegal activities in the park and a 60 percent increase in community participation in park activities. Community elders began to select students for advanced educational pursuits, including some who have gone on to become park rangers.
“The community finally realized that the gorillas are our gorillas, and with sustainable tourism, we can care for them and ourselves as well,” said Sabuhoro.
The path to Clemson
From 2006 to 2013, Sabuhoro continued his work with Rwanda Eco-Tourism while serving on a larger scale with Rwanda’s Chamber of Tourism and a nongovernmental organization focused on tourism development. His achievements garnered wide recognition — he received the Young Conservationist of the World award in 2008 and was invited to the White House in 2010 for a summit of young African leaders.
But as always, Sabuhoro was looking for a way to make a greater impact on endangered species and the underserved people who share their landscape.
And that path led him to Clemson, where he began his Ph.D. in parks, recreation and tourism management (PRTM) in 2013 while colleagues continued Rwanda Eco-Tourism’s work.
At Clemson, Sabuhoro is studying how investments made by nongovernmental organizations, governments and other sources impact economic development and conservation in and around Volcanoes National Park. He is mapping resource allocations and evaluating their impacts on poaching, conservation behaviors, food availability, education and health — both at the community level and in individual households.
“I want to use my research and findings to develop tools and models that can be used in conservation and community development efforts — in other parts of Africa and around the world, wherever the needs may be,” said Sabuhoro, who is now 38 and will graduate in December 2016.
During his time at Clemson, Sabuhoro has already made an impact, along with fellow East African PRTM colleagues involved in the International Conservation Caucus Foundation. In 2014, they hosted a group of U.S. Senators for a three-day Rwandan trip in which they shared about the critical role of conservation in poverty alleviation, economic development and security in Rwanda, and the subsequent impacts on the U.S.
A mother’s influence
It was difficult as a child for Sabuhoro to envision a future where he would meet an American president and lawmakers and impact countless lives on his continent. His parents fled Rwanda for Uganda during the Rwandan Civil War of the early 1990s. His father moved to the Congo to find work, and his mother raised Sabuhoro and his siblings, struggling to make ends meet.
When Sabuhoro and his siblings could not imagine a brighter future, his mother could. “Even when we went a couple of days without food, my mother would say, ‘There is hope. You are going to make it,’” he said. “She saw hope in us, and instilled in us that we would achieve, and that only we could do it.”
That determined spirit led Sabuhoro’s mother to scrape together enough funds to send him to secondary school (equivalent to U.S. high school). When funds weren’t available to go the second year, Sabuhoro went back to school anyway, illegally, and convinced the head of the school to allow him to grow vegetables on school land to pay for his tuition.
“My mother believed in education, and I believed in education,” Sabuhoro said. “Her courage kept me going.”
Sabuhoro went on to graduate from secondary school and attended college in Rwanda, where he focused on law and discovered his true passion for the environment. “I fell in love with the wildlife in my homeland,” he said. “I knew immediately that I was where I belonged.”
While serving as a lawyer in Rwanda, he saw that no one was looking at how to save endangered wildlife, even though it was illegal to harm them. So, he left his law career and started his work with parks — work that has led him to Clemson and will lead him to more life-changing work in the years to come.
“Through my experience at Clemson, I have learned that the world has no boundaries,” Sabuhoro said. “It has helped me develop a global perspective, and understand that we are all part of a global family, a global connection, a global network — and we can all work together through research and service to make the world a better place.”
Melanie Kieve is the public information director for the College of Health, Education and Human Development and the Eugene T. Moore School of Education. Photos courtesy of Edwin Sabuhoro.
Sabuhoro was featured on CNN’s African Voices series: