Human–Wildlife Conflict Management in the Virunga area

Categories: Journal no. 44, Conflicts, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Bwindi, Mountain Gorilla, Gorilla Journal

Banana plant destroyed by gorillas at the edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (© Michele Goldsmith)

Banana plant destroyed by gorillas at the edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (© Michele Goldsmith)

Human–wildlife conflict is a major conservation and management issue wherever people and wildlife coexist. It can take many forms, including the destruction of crops and property, and competition for natural resources. Commonly the people worst affected by conflict are rural farmers. In the Virunga-Bwindi region, habitat destruction and human population growth mean that the mountain gorilla and other forest animals, such as bush pigs, elephants and buffaloes, are increasingly coming into contact with people, often leading to conflicts. For mountain gorillas, interactions with local people are a source of stress, can result in the transmission of human diseases, and can lead to direct physical attacks, disabilities such as loss of limbs from snares, and even death.

In the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, gorillas were almost never recorded as doing significant damage, but over the last few years, the situation has somehow changed, with many more incidents involving gorillas debarking eucalyptus trees and going further outside the park, and a noticeable increase in elephants exiting the park, while buffaloes are still the main cause of crop-raiding.

This trend, an increase of human–wildlife incidents over the years, is also observed in the Mikeno sector of Virunga National Park, Congo. Consequently, animals like buffaloes and elephants, but also gorillas, can potentially impact communities up to several kilometres from the park boundary. People are regularly injured by buffaloes or elephants, and fatal accidents have also been reported. Regarding the mountain gorillas in Congo, the Rugendo group was historically the only group that was reported outside the forest, and it has continued its habit of spending large amounts of time outside the park. Other gorilla groups or lone silverbacks are also now increasingly frequenting maize and banana fields on community land.

Some communities around the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park are experiencing severe problems with buffaloes and elephants outside the park. There is only one habituated gorilla group, Nyakagezi, that frequents the park on a part-time basis, and this group has never been reported outside the park.

Around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, crop raiding by wildlife is an issue that contributes to hostility between the park and local communities. Even if gorillas come only third on the overall list of problem animals, their high profile gives them a particular weight in the perception of local communities. Habitat loss can partly explain why ranging patterns of some gorilla groups straddle the current park boundary. Most experts however suggest that gorilla habituation for tourism as well as increased protection have been the main factors explaining the increasingly high numbers of exits of gorilla groups to community land. A total of 9 habituated groups are known to have come out of the forest, or on the boundary, over the last 10 years. The “worst offenders” are Nkuringo, Habinyanja, Rushegura and Mubare groups.

Human–Wildlife Conflict Management

In Bwindi, the Human–Gorilla (HUGO) Conflict Resolution program was established in 1998 to prevent or mitigate the effects of conflicts between moun-tain gorillas and the human population living close to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The main activity to immediately address gorilla crop-raiding was a coordinated effort at chasing gorillas back inside the forest whenever they leave the park. The pilot program started with two Gorilla Monitoring Response Teams (GMRTs). They are made up of trained local volunteers chosen by their communities, supervised by a Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) ranger. The team leaders, also called HUGO supervisors, are UWA rangers, who monitor gorilla movements with GPS data, and report to the Park Warden in Buhoma. Whenever gorillas are detected outside of the park, GMRT members are mobilised to chase gorillas back into the park. The chasing activities were designed as a short term remedy to the conflict, but the broader HUGO program also included the initial activities of the UWA veterinary unit to address disease risks, which later included community health/hygiene sensitisation programs in human–gorilla conflict parishes.

An analysis in 1999 established that there were favourable results from continuous chasing. The other benefits identified during the analysis were that communities now understood that UWA was willing to respond to their concerns. Subsequent to the analysis, a third GMRT was started in 2000 and attempts at modifying land use patterns in areas frequented by gorillas especially in Nkuringo were made through land purchase between 2002 and 2004. In 2010, there were 7 HUGO groups on the Buhoma side, and in 2007, 3 HUGO groups were created on the south-east flank of BINP. On the Nkuringo side, the first HUGO group was created in 1998, and a second group in 2007.

The HUGO programme was extended to the Mikeno sector in 2001, and 3 groups of 10 people each were put in place in Jomba, Bikenge and Bukima. There is little information on the effectiveness and the impact of the HUGO teams in Congo, as all the data disappeared when the Rumangabo station was ransacked and looted by rebel groups in 2008.

The very first buffalo wall that was erected around the forest was at Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, immediately after its official gazettement as a national park in 1991. The first objective was to serve as physical demarcation, together with concrete pyramid markers. The second objective was to prevent large mammals, particularly buffaloes and elephants, exiting the park and causing damage on community land. Today the total boundary length in Uganda is ca. 16 km.

Construction of the buffalo wall around Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda started in 2002 and it was completed by 2007 (76 km). Around the Mikeno sector of Virunga National Park, the construction of the wall also began in 2002, and a total of 52 km was completed by mid-2007. A subsequent evaluation of the wall around the Mikeno sector gave evidence that not only had the wall helped in reducing crop raiding, especially from buffaloes, but it was also limiting encroachment of the park.

Buffer Zone Management

Buffer zones are blocks of land located between natural forests and cultivated areas that are managed to discourage wildlife from crossing between them. In its broadest sense, a buffer zone should be an area where land-use practices and land management are designed to reduce or prevent human–wildlife conflict. Before land-use changes were implemented at Nkuringo, there was no deterrent to habituated gorillas, which typically ranged up to 1 km beyond the park boundaries. A piece of land that incorporated the range of the Nkuringo group and extends approximately 350 m from the park boundary and stretches 12 km along the boundary was bought by UWA from the local community. The buffer zone has been divided into a “community exclusive use sub-zone”, which is the outermost 12 km by 150 m, and an “actively managed sub-zone” which borders the park (12 km by 200 m).

Lessons Learned

Lesson 1: Human–Wildlife conflict has to be viewed in the broader context of cost-benefit analysis. Communities living near protected areas have to bear multiple costs: loss of access to the natural resources in the forest, exposure to crop-raiding animals, and even physical threats to property or human lives. On the other hand, modern conservation concepts have been advocating for many years the sharing of benefits with the communities living near protected areas. Ideally, the costs should be kept as low as possible and the benefits higher.

Lesson 2: Solutions aimed at preventing or mitigating human–wildlife conflicts have to be carefully and continuously assessed in the long run, through sustained monitoring systems. Very little has been done in terms of monitoring the outcome and impact of the various strategies aiming at preventing or mitigating the human–wildlife conflicts throughout the region. Because of this lack of quantitative datasets it is extremely difficult to make informed decisions and to properly assess what works and what does not, or what the general trends are over time.

Lesson 3: Solutions designed by humans are constantly challenged by adaptable wildlife. This requires constant vigilance and adaptable solutions by humans, but also basic and sustainable maintenance systems. A striking observation made during this study is that, once a human–wildlife conflict solution has been implemented, its impact lasts for a certain time and then fades away, sometimes to be completely obliterated. This can be attributed either to a lack of maintenance and follow-up of the solution, or to counter-solutions found by wildlife species, or, most likely, a combination of both.

Lesson 4: Land-use practices around protected areas are usually overlooked but could bring about significant changes in decreasing conflicts. With the exception of the Nkuringo buffer zone, community land starts where protected area ends, with no transition whatsoever. While designing barriers such as stone walls or trenches can have some impact, the issue of land use in the immediate vicinity of the forest is probably even more crucial to consider. The main obstacles are livelihood considerations and traditional resistance.

Lesson 5: “Participation” of local communities can be envisaged at different levels, but only certain types of participation have a real meaning and a chance of success. Communities around Nkuringo seem to have generally lost their motivation in the management of the buffer zone. As some respondents put it, they feel they are in a “wheelbarrow which is pushed around by other people”. Poor communities which are on the borderline of meeting their livelihood requirements show very high expectations when offered potential solutions, at least in the beginning.

Lesson 6: Leadership among local communities has to be properly assessed and secured, and incentives revisited. Usual incentives, such as equipment or cash, do not necessarily offer guarantees of success, but proper leadership motivated by the interest of the community offers better prospects.

Lesson 7: Once identified and agreed upon, buffer zone objectives have to be thoroughly implemented. Based on community accounts, particularly the “frontline” populations living next to the Nkuringo buffer zone boundary, the level of crop-raiding has not decreased and many even claim that it has worsened. The gorillas are still spending a lot of time outside the park and even on community land outside the buffer zone. The most striking observation is that the inner zone, which was supposed to be “actively manipulated so as to prevent the regeneration of natural forest”, has in fact been left to regenerate. This secondary vegetation represents excellent habitat for several wildlife species, particularly gorillas. The outer zone, in many areas, is starting to resemble the inner zone, because attempts to cultivate buffer crops have failed and the vegetation is growing. The unfortunate conclusion is that, in the minds of many community members and critics, the park has been effectively extended.

Lesson 8: It is important to listen to communities before embarking on experimental buffer zone programmes. Since 2005, the Nkuringo buffer zone has seen a number of attempts at establishing buffer crops that would achieve the double objective of preventing wildlife from crossing the area and of providing the local communities with income-generating opportunities. None of these attempts has really worked, either for commercial or marketing reasons, or because of technical challenges. Both the communities in Nkuringo and the local government officials have always suggested tea as a good solution for the area. The Nkuringo region is perfectly suitable for tea plantations, although this solution would require some significant investments.

Lesson 9: Land purchase for conservation is a very complex issue that requires time for proper assessment. Nowhere in Uganda has the acquisition of land for conservation been more active than in Bwindi. The first plots of land were bought from private landowners, mainly farmers, in the Buhoma area in the 1990s. In the case of land purchase in Nkuringo, communities were consulted, and preparation for land acquisition took several years, during which plans for land-use were discussed at all levels. Assessing the value and merit of land acquisition is a delicate undertaking which at least requires the validation of the principles and objectives at the origin of the operation.


  • Implement past recommendations
  • Identify appropriate solutions for the sustainability of the HUGO programme
  • Re-establish and maintain monitoring programs at all levels
  • Look for innovative strategies in addressing human-wildlife conflict issues
  • Consider tea plantations as ultimately the only viable and effective solution for the buffer zone in Nkuringo

Summary of:
Kalpers, J., Gray, M., Asuma, S., Rutagarama, E., Makambo, W. & Rurangwa, E. (2011): Buffer Zone and Human–Wildlife Conflict Management. Pp. 105–137 in: Gray, M. & Rutagarama, E. (eds.) 20 Years of IGCP: Lessons Learned in Mountain Gorilla Conservation. Kigali (IGCP)