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Rwanda's Heroic Park Guards Win Getty Conservation Prize


For risking their lives to stay at their posts and guard endangered mountain gorillas during the 1994 Rwandan civil war, the staff of Rwanda's Parc National des Volcans will receive the J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Award. The $50,000 prize, administered by World Wildlife Fund, is one of the largest awards given for outstanding achievement in the conservation of wildlife and its habitats.

According to WWF President Kathryn S. Fuller, who announced the winner in late January, "The past eighteen months have been a time of unspeakable tragedy for the people of Rwanda. The Parc National des Volcans staff, through their heroic efforts, have helped prevent a compounding of that tragedy while protecting mountain gorillas---one of the world's most beloved and endangered species."

Guards Remain at Post
Roughly half of the world's 650 remaining mountain gorillas reside in the Virunga mountain range of Rwanda and Zaire. Long beset by poachers, these gorillas faced a potentially even greater threat to their survival last year when Rwanda's bloody civil war spread to the Parc National des Volcans.
The park's troubles began when soldiers breached the park's perimeters and ransacked and damaged its buildings. Later, when remnants of the deposed government's army fled the country, they beat a destructive path straight through the park, breaking into offices, destroying records and books and throwing computers out windows.

Throughout the ordeal, park guards and administrators remained calm, refusing to abandon their posts for the relative safety of neighboring Zaire. Park guards, even without financial assistance, continued patrolling the grounds for poachers so successfully that not one gorilla was lost during the conflict (although one was later killed by a land mine), even as gorillas in neighboring Zaire and Uganda fell to poachers.

Eventually, the deposed government army, in an effort to clear out as much of Rwanda's population as possible, forcibly drove park staff into Zaire. When the new Rwandan government finally gained access to the park, they found a heap of buildings and infrastructure all of it needing to be rebuilt.

WWF Aids Rebuilding Effort
The International Gorilla Conservation Program, supported by a coalition of conservation groups including WWF, is currently helping to rebuild the park, supplying the Rwandan government with copies of destroyed files and working with officials to strengthen the country's park system.

Although some of the original staff have since returned to the park, the tourist revenues that once supported it have disappeared, and the park's needs remain enormous. "In addition to rebuilding facilities, the national parks office needs equipment, uniforms, raincoats, boots, rations, and field allowances," says Henri Nsanjama, WWF's Vice President for Africa.
"The Getty prize money will help defray some of those expenses, while at the same time honoring a group of courageous conservationists as they resume their task of protecting mountain gorillas and their forest habitat."

Full-text from WWF Focus Newsletter March/April 1996, Vol. 18, Number 2