After spending his childhood in Uganda, and then watching the turmoil that took place in the country and the region from afar, Praveen Moman was spurred into action. He founded Volcanoes Safaris in 1997 in an attempt to protect the wilderness, as well as the gorillas, great apes, and other species that called it home.
Twenty-five years later, the organization is at the forefront of gorilla tourism, with four lodges across Uganda and Rwanda, and the mountain gorillas themselves have become one of the world’s preeminent conservation success stories.
“It’s one of the few species in the world where the numbers are going up,” Moman says. “In the 1970s there were 300 and now there are more than 1,000. It’s a straight graph—that’s a good thing.”
That doesn’t mean that all problems have been resolved, or that the future is without risk. Volcanoes hosted a retreat during its anniversary year looking at the challenges that lie ahead over the next quarter century, bringing in voices from organizations including Conservation Through Public Health, the Jane Goodall Institute, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, Gorilla Doctors, and the UN Great Apes Program.
“It’s looking at what have we got right in the last 25 years, but also, what do we do in the next 25? And how are we going to safeguard?” Moman says. “We want to make sure the Albertine Rift ecosystem survives. As Africa changes, as development increases, as population increases, as consumption increases, how do we make sure we safeguard that?”
Moman, 68, spoke with Penta about the beginnings of Volcanoes Safaris, the success of gorilla conservation efforts, and dealing with challenges like the risk to gorillas from Covid.
PENTA: What was the impetus behind getting into gorilla conservation?
Praveen Moman: I was born in Uganda. I lived here until I was 16. I’ve had family in East Africa since 1900. My father came in 1937, and he was very, very passionate about the wilderness, about the landscapes, about the animals, about the people of this region. So he knew it well and he made sure we knew it well. So there’s long connections and then they got interrupted with the Idi Amin [ordered] expulsion in 1972.
Ten years after I left, I had already reconnected to the region, but the country had been destroyed. In those years It was a functioning country in a post-colonial way and then it collapsed. But as I continued coming back, in 1995 it just struck me that, you know, you could travel again in the country, it had opened up, and it had these magical, amazing ecosystems, amazing wildlife, amazing landscapes. And that was even then, still one year after the genocide. And therefore there were lots of people in the region and there were many refugees around Kisoro and much instability. I just thought, I’m going to set up Volcanoes, and in 1997, when I finished my job in London in government, that’s what I did. I came back and I started pitching a tent in [Mgahinga Gorilla National Park], which became our Mount Gahinga Lodge today.
Volcanoes has four lodges across Uganda and Rwanda. Courtesy Praveen Moman
During the past quarter century the field has come a long way, and in November, you hosted a retreat on the Albertine Rift Ecosystems that looked ahead to the next 25. What were some of your key takeaways?
Inevitably it’s a mixed picture. The mountain gorilla in some ways is a very positive story. But it is a tiny, precarious population and could get knocked out by some disease or some unknown factor. And also, in terms of DNA, we share 98 percent of our DNA with them. So, some disease that affects us could potentially affect them, whether Covid or Ebola or something like that, could have devastating consequences. None of that has happened, touch wood.
The governments of the region—Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC—work very hard on gorilla conservation, devote resources and time to it, partly because they get tourism money from it. And there are many international conservation specialist organizations also involved, so of the species and ecosystems in the world, in some ways it’s one of the most privileged. These are small territories, small island forests, but well supported.
You mentioned the risks to gorillas with diseases such as Covid and Ebola. How did you analyze the risks in terms of beginning to reopen and putting appropriate measures in place to protect the animals?
It’s important to say we are not experts at gorilla health or conservation. We’re guided by the national park authorities, who are formally responsible for them, and the different specialists and conservation organizations. So, for example, we have Gorilla Doctors that work in these three countries, they guide and advise the park authorities. We also have in Uganda an organization called Conservation Through Public Health set up by Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. They advise and they say, ‘Look, we’ve reviewed this, we’ve checked the science, we’ve checked the literature, it’s OK to continue, but instead of seven meters away, you should be 10 meters away. You should have masks and we should do PCR testing.” Whatever has been recommended or implemented by the governments, we have followed it 100%. Full-stop. We certainly don’t want to mess around.
Do you believe that gorilla conservation and tourism has played a part in the ongoing journey of recovery in the region over the three decades since the Rwandan Genocide occurred?
Obviously in 1994 the genocide against the Tutsi was one of the major negative episodes in human history, and a very low point for the region. And the Rwandese government has made big efforts to bring about reconciliation and to bring about healing. Within all that there’s also been the rebuilding of the country, rebuilding of the economic structure.
We’re not involved in the politics in any way and that’s not something we can comment on. But certainly, I think in a small country like Rwanda, something like the gorillas are very important. It’s a small tourism asset but it’s one of the most important tourist assets in the world, and it’s an iconic species. The Rwandese government fully understands that and have supported all efforts to back conservation.
I would hope that our work, especially coming from a difficult time in Rwanda, and Uganda, has helped bring about a beacon of hope, if you like. And I hope that helps to remind everybody what can be done and, it’s wonderful to see the journey that’s been made from when we started in 1997 to today.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
20 Minutes with: Volcanoes Safaris Founder Praveen Moman