Rwanda, land of a thousand invisible hills. It’s an overcast morning in Kigali, capital of Africa’s most densely populated country. The sound of a bamboo broom scraping the tarmac accompanies a solitary sweeper engaged in the Sisyphean task of keeping the hotel frontage spick and span. Overhead, a black kite looms into view. Then another, then a third, swooping down like dementors out of the mist. The drabness of the scene is relieved by the iridescent headgear of a diminutive sunbird, scolding the universe from a nearby palm frond.
A distant sound like muffled applause heralds the approach of rain. It begins as half-hearted drizzle and builds rapidly in a crescendo until the decibels of the downpour drown out all other noise. Before long, the road has been transformed into a river. This is meant to be Rwanda’s short dry season, but our unhinged climate clearly has other ideas.
I’m here to attend a series of workshops on behalf of Fauna & Flora International (FFI), to help fine-tune the latest communications strategy for the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), a partnership that has been working to safeguard mountain gorillas for more than 40 years. The wide-ranging discussions will cover community engagement, the threats posed by infrastructure developments and – top of the agenda – tourism best practice.
The patient and painstaking habituation of mountain gorillas to the presence of humans has given us tourist-friendly gorillas and – for the fortunate few who can afford the price of a permit – furnished a memorable wildlife-watching experience that shows no sign of diminishing in popularity. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. And yet…
Like other great apes, mountain gorillas are highly susceptible to human-borne diseases. Even a common cold, which is little more than a temporary inconvenience for humans, could prove fatal to them. With coronavirus in the news and the dangers of disease transmission dominating the headlines, we need to acknowledge that human-borne infections pose one of the most serious threats to the survival of mountain gorillas – and to strain every sinew to minimise that risk.