Conservation through alignment: how saving people saves gorillas

Sabyinyo group, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, 2012. Image by Carine06

Sabyinyo group, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, 2012. Image by Carine06

As we approach the first twenty years of the 21st century, it is easy to feel that we live on a crowded planet. While the rate of human population growth has been in decline since the late 1960s, largely thanks to the fruits of economic development and social progress, we now number over 7 billion. This is likely to keep increasing until at least the middle of the century, and potentially well beyond.

As our presence and impact on the earth for agriculture, settlements and resources becomes ever more ubiquitous, those special places of wilderness, where human impact and influence is relatively light, appear ever-more precious. These are our wild edens, where we can observe and commune with the processes and wonders of nature, at a distance from the very different wonder that is human civilisation.

But we know now that nothing is, or will remain, untouched by our civilisation. Thanks to rising concentrations of carbon dioxide from human activity, we are raising the temperature of the planet, altering the climate and the chemistry of our air and oceans. Even those Edens we strive not to touch will be altered by our actions from beyond their borders.

Protecting our wild edens means taking drastic actions to limit the change in temperature to something these places might accommodate and survive. That means, at the absolute minimum, transitioning the global economy away from its near-total dependence on fossil-carbon based fuels, using an intelligent mix of nuclear and renewable technologies to provide us the electricity and other energy services we require.

But that won’t be enough. The roughest impacts of climate change remain at least decades in the future. We already threaten our wild edens in a host of other ways. We must take pressure from these places immediately, not in 2050. We need to boost their resilience, their quality and their connectivity, if we are to offer future generations any hope of enjoying their beauty, with or without climate change.

But how is this even possible as human populations continue to grow? We are used to hearing one version of this story: that prosperous humans are bad for nature, human consumption always comes at nature’s expense, and we must trade off human welfare for protection of nature.

Fortunately, this does not need to be true. Evidence abounds for the best news imaginable: that prosperous humanity can be a powerful driver of the protection and restoration of nature. Consider the case of Rwanda, one of the homes of the critically endangered mountain gorilla.

In 1994, Rwanda experienced a genocide that may have killed 1 million or more people from a population of 8 million. The event left the already-poor country economically, socially and politically in tatters. The mountain gorilla population was left at perhaps as little as 300-400 individuals.

Since the end of the genocide, Rwanda has become one of the fastest growing economies in central Africa. The country achieved economic growth of around 8% per year between 2001 and 2014, and today growth rates of around 6 % are expected to be maintained. Human life expectancy has doubled to more than 60 years, child mortality (under five years of age) has fallen from 230 per 1000 to 55. Exports of tea and coffee have increased, infrastructure including telecommunications has improved dramatically. Rwanda has added 100 MW of energy capacity in the form of a unique methane flaring project based on Lake Kivu, and is gradually developing hydroelectric capacity.

What of the gorillas? They are in the best shape in decades, with the population now potentially over 1000 individuals.

How has this happened? Without any doubt, the mountain gorillas have been the beneficiaries of intense, direct conservation efforts. But those efforts work hand-in-glove with the political stability and improving economic fortunes of the average Rwandan. In Rwanda’s dark past, desperate humans deforested gorilla habitat for firewood, hunted gorilla for meat and poached gorilla for trophies. There was little alignment between human welfare and gorilla welfare.

That has changed. With new energy infrastructure coming on-line, pressure on woodlands is alleviated. Today, several ‘gorilla conservation’ interventions are, in fact, directly aimed at people, not gorillas, such as improving local schools and business, creating more jobs, and boosting the incomes of park rangers. The carefully managed gorilla tourism programs are now a major source of jobs and income. The tea plantations provide a buffer between human and gorilla habitat, since gorillas have no appetite for tea. With the humans of Rwanda enjoying lives of greater peace and opportunity, they can align with the fortunes of the gorillas of Rwanda. That gives this wild eden the greatest possible chance of recovery, growth and protection into the future.

The survival of the gorillas is more dependent on humans than through mere alignment of interests.  A 2011 study[1] identified that it may be ‘extreme conservation’ methods, defined as ‘efforts targeted to deliberately increase positive human influences, including veterinary care and close monitoring of individual animals’ that account for not merely arresting the decline, but actually increasing the numbers of these creatures.  It was in the ‘habituated’ populations of gorillas (those now accustomed to human ecotourism and research) where nearly all the population growth occurred.

In other words, Rwanda is now not merely leaving space for the gorillas. It is actively caring for and stewarding them into a stronger future. Such processes and outcomes are not, and will never be possible, in circumstances where humans live in deprivation, desperation and conflict. Human development must continue, it must become ever more sustainable, and the energy powering it must be free of fossil carbon as quickly as possible. The key, again, is alignment. It is particularly nuclear technologies that will help us achieve this alignment at a global scale, with their proven ability to power entire, modern electricity grids with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions. Combined with locally advantageous renewable energy resources, every nation on earth can identify a pathway to a clean energy future. We will still need to decide to protect our wild edens. Strong economies, underpinned by clean and reliable energy, can let us make that decision more often. 


1.         Robbins, M.M., et al., Extreme conservation leads to recovery of the Virunga mountain gorillas. PLoS One, 2011. 6(6): p. e19788.


Ben HeardComment