Alternative fuel project counters deforestation a threat to East Africa gorilla national parks

An insidious threat to Virunga and Mgahinga National Parks, that home the largest population of rare mountain gorillas and numerous other species of wildlife, has been the illegal charcoal trade.

There is a shortage of trees–and fuel for cooking–in the populous communities adjacent to the sanctuary, which is in the border region of the Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda in Africa’s equatorial highlands. That has spurred illegal charcoal operations in Africa’s oldest national parks.

The invasion of Virunga by raiders who cook forest trees into charcoal has caused a bitter and violent struggle that has resulted in the deaths of park rangers, transgressors–and gorillas caught in the crossfire.
One solution to the problem is finding an alternative form of cooking fuel for local communities–a source of energy that can take some of the pressure off the forests of Virunga. Conservationists think they have found one.

“Rwandans living near the Virunga rain forest, a protected ecosystem home to about 450 endangered mountain gorillas, can now help combat deforestation and raise their own standard of living thanks to the introduction of an alternative, sustainable energy technology: fuel briquettes composed of recycled materials that can be made easily with simple wooden presses,” the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) said this week.

Founded in 1986 shortly after the death of gorilla researcher and National Geographic grantee Dian Fossey, the U.S.-based MGVP provides veterinary care to the mountain gorillas living in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Charcoal, a fuel that requires the burning of large quantities of trees to produce, is presently the primary fuel source used by the communities near the Virunga forest in the transboundary area between Uganda, Rwanda and DRC,” MGVP said.

MGVP worked with Art of Conservation and the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) to start establishing the briquette technology in the gorilla region by training a group of 20 Rwandans to make the fuel, the nonprofit said in a news statement.

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