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Prize Winners Today: Gorilla Conservation with Eugène Rutagarama

Picture of Eugene speaking with community.

July 21, 2020

We are thrilled to launch our Prize Winners Today series, beginning this month with Eugène Rutagarama. Eugène won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2001 for helping to rebuild Rwanda’s national parks system and protecting gorilla habitat in the wake of war and genocide in his country. Today, Eugène serves as a senior conservation advisor to the global NGO Wild Earth Allies.

Catching Up with Eugène Rutagarama

With shelter in place in effect and the postponement of the 2020 Prize due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was unclear when we could expect to be in the same room again with a Goldman Prize winner. Luckily, technology has the ability to bypass travel and distancing restrictions, and thanks to video conferencing, this month we were face-to-face with a slightly blurry, smiling Eugène.

Eugène is a powerful microcosm of the 194 Goldman Prize winners to-date. Here is an individual who survived war and unspeakable genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and, after the dust settled, was able to re-envision international parks, fight for conservation, and more than double the population of mountain gorillas. As the newest member to the Goldman Prize staff, I was a bit star struck and very excited for our conversation to begin.

The Impact of the Goldman Prize

When asked if he remembered the moment he learned he had won the Prize, Eugène laughed. “At that time, I was busy trying to catch up with my new position,” he remembered. “Frankly, I didn’t know anything about the Prize!” His first thought was, in fact, that the Prize was a scam.

But the Prize came at the perfect time for Eugène’s work. Transitioning from Rwanda-based efforts to regional campaigns encompassing three different countries, the notoriety of the Prize provided Eugène with crucial international recognition. He was able to unite officials across borders, successfully bringing together officials from Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to work on a cohesive plan for mountain gorilla conservation. He was widely recognized by generous donors, including the Howard Buffett Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, USAID, and many others. But the accompanying notoriety of the Prize also raised the bar. “It was an incentive,” Eugène nodded. “I had to live up to my reputation.”

Eugene and gorilla picture
Eugène sits by a gorilla, as seen in his 2001 profile video for the Goldman Prize.

Working with our Cousin—the Mountain Gorilla

Eugène is best-known for his successes in mountain gorilla conservation. Note: there are two distinct gorilla populations—those found in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda and those in the Virunga Mountains, which are spread among DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda. Eugène’s work focuses on the Virunga gorilla population.

In 1980, the official Virunga mountain gorilla census reported a population of 250 animals. In 2000, a year before Eugene won the Prize, the number had risen to 359. And in 2016, the most recent year the census was administered, the population count was 604. According to World Wildlife Foundation, mountain gorillas at large were downlisted from Critically Endangered to Endangered in 2018.

Eugène attributes this success to three factors. First, the engagement of multiple stakeholders to align on conservation goals—NGOs, government, local administration, and, as often seen in this region, the army. Second, the empowerment of park authorities and staff to ensure lasting ownership of resources. Finally, the foundational role of science to inform all decision-making.

When asked about the impact of Covid-19 on the gorilla population, Eugène concisely stated, “I hope that we get rid of this virus soon.” He continued that there is a high risk of infecting our cousins—the mountain gorillas. As a result, Rwandan park authorities have taken preventative measures, including stopping gorilla tourism and limiting all direct contact with gorillas.

Connecting Gorilla Conservation to Women’s Education

Today, Eugène is the senior conservation advisor to Wild Earth Allies (WEA), a Washington-based NGO that partners with local organizations to protect wildlife and habitat biodiversity. Eugène firmly believes in WEA’s emphasis on communities as key contributors and active players in conservation programs.

Eugène is currently working with WEA to oversee a project to build rainwater tanks in communities around Volcanoes National Park in the Virunga Mountains. The project partners with Imbereheza Gahunga, a women-led community-based organization known for building specialized concrete water tanks.

The cost to build one 6,000-liter rainwater tank is US$1,000, but the output is far greater. Eugene enumerated:

  1. “With one rainwater tank at home, you keep safe the home of mountain gorilla because you prevent at least five people to enter the park for water fetching.”
  2. “Furthermore, with one rainwater tank at home, you prevent at least three children from missing their school and you help them do their homework instead of spending the entire evening fetching water at a long distance.”
  3. “Lastly, with a rainwater tank at home, you allow a mother to rest after a long farming day.”

To date, WEA has funded 62 water tanks, reaching 310 families and 1,200 individuals. According to a survey conducted earlier this year, none reported needing to enter Volcanoes National Park to collect water. Eugène added that the impact is likely far greater, noting that in small, interwoven communities, a water tank quickly evolves into a shared commodity.

If you are interested in this project, consider supporting Wild Earth Allies.

Eugène outside the Imbereheza Gahunga office (left), and with community members in front of a rainwater tank (right) (photo: Wild Earth Allies)

A Busy Retirement

While impactful and interesting, Eugène noted that conservation work “requires a lot of physical energy. In the end, it is tiring.” After decades in the field, Eugène was ready for a change. But he was unable to see himself in an office job, saying it just wasn’t in his nature. The solution? Today, in addition to his advisory role with Wild Earth Allies, Eugène puts his energy into a self-described “retirement project”—the Emeraude Kivu Resort.

When evaluating their next step, Eugène and his wife decided that opening a hotel was a great way to do business while setting a precedent for social and environmental leadership. Opening its doors in 2014, the Emeraude Kivu Resort has grown into an impressive establishment with 32 rooms, each with a personal view of Lake Kivu. The family-run hotel is located in western Rwanda, not far from where Eugène was born.

We are certain that the growth of the establishment has been marked by the same dedication, collaborative spirit, and gentle humor Eugene has exhibited during his impressive career in conservation. We wish Eugène the best as he continues to work on his many “retirement projects.”

Picture of Eugene on Lake Kivu
Eugène on Lake Kivu, Rwanda (photo: Eric Sambol)

This blog post is part of the Prize Winners Today series, a monthly installment that reports on the latest news and projects from past recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. From reflections on the Prize to updates from the field, we’ll answer the question—what are these extraordinary individuals doing today?

About the author

Ellen Lomonico

Digital Communications Manager

Ellen is excited to elevate the stories and amplify the impact of Goldman Prize recipients around the globe. She manages the Prize’s digital presence, produces written and visual content, and contributes to strategic communications planning. Prior to joining the Prize, Ellen held various roles in the solar industry, from marketing to education program management. She holds a BA in Geography and Environmental Studies, with minors in Spanish and Environmental Systems and Society from the University of California, Los Angeles. She joined the Prize in 2020.

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