Hello everyone! I’m Gloria Mwenge Bitomwa and I am a tourism officer at Kahuzi-Biega National Park, home to the endangered eastern lowland gorillas also known as Grauer‘s gorillas. I lead a team of 50 people who help with the daily monitoring of our conservation area and the 14 gorilla families who reside here with us.
My focus is on developing sustainable conservation through designing and promoting eco-tourism activities. I maintain the communication between the park and stakeholders and raise awareness about Kahuzi-Biega in the broader public. Basically, I do everything to try to attract visitors that can generate an income for the park and make sure that this happens in a way that is beneficial for the wildlife and the surrounding people.
I am also a wife and mother of two sons, they are 5 and 9 years old. I was born in the city of Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but I lived in Kenya for some years where I completed my undergraduate degree in Business Administration. At the age of 25, I decided to return to my country of birth and direct my skills towards wildlife conservation. This passion was nurtured by my dad, who also works in the field and who is devoted to teaching the next generation about the importance of nature preservation.
It wasn’t easy to enter the conservation field as a marketing specialist. The culture there is that this is a place for biologists or other scientists. Arriving at Kahuzi-Biega with a business and marketing degree, I was looked down upon. On top of that, I was half the age of most of my colleagues — and a woman! But the attitude of some of my coworkers only motivated me to work harder. And it paid off, in 2019 I was recognised by the Mandela Washington fellowship as one of the 700 accomplished Young African Leaders furthering innovation and positive impacts in their communities.
I am most passionate about promoting my beloved country, the national park and its most important resident — the Grauer gorilla — to the outside world. And I knew right from the start that my business skills would be put to good use. While many conservationists have attempted innovations, most remain unknown to the general public, so those efforts don’t reach their full potential. That is why I’m trying my best to advocate for the protected area, the wildlife and the communities around them.
Obstacles to these goals are many. For decades, one of the world’s deadliest, longest-running crises has been unfolding in the DRC. War and conflict have divided my country into many pieces and made for its bad international reputation. On top of that, rapidly rising population numbers are putting great pressure on the natural environment. Poverty and hunger can make people do horrible things.
You Can’t Ask a Starving Man to Protect the Forest
In the park, we have significant issues with poachers. Many of my colleagues have lost their lives in the field, trying to protect the animals. This tragic reality was only exacerbated during the Covid lockdown. Yet I am convinced that local populations can live in harmony with the gorillas and other protected animals!
To break the cycle of illegal activities, we conducted a survey in 2016 on local values and attitudes towards nature conservation. We found that most people really do value nature and wildlife, and that conservation practices have always been a part of local culture. The Rega, an ethnic group living alongside the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, even have a spirit who closes the forest sometimes to allow wild animals to restore their numbers. The indigenous Batwa “Pygmy” people don’t kill gorillas because they are convinced that the souls of their ancestors are embodied in them. They protect the primates to preserve the spirits of their elders inhabiting the forest.
Sadly, the precarious economic situation of some communities around the park pressures them to violate those beliefs and values in order to feed their families. For example, the Batwa will chop trees for wood, not realising that it destroys the habitat of their beloved gorillas. You cannot tell a starving man to protect the forest, he needs to meet the basic needs of his family before he can think about that. Therefore, it is so important to generate an income for the park and the surrounding communities.
Right now, 80% of our budget depends on donors. A major challenge in my work has been to apply for grants and donations. Often when I write emails explaining why we need money, I don’t even get an answer. It’s a frustrating process. Sometimes I wonder if I was a white person, if I could get a different response …
As a feminist, I have also made an effort to train and employ other women in the sector. Today, 60% of our staff are women from communities nearby. We hire them as tourist guides, porters, to maintain hiking trails, … and other tasks that are usually male-dominated. Employing women provides a wage that makes them proud, and enriches the lives of their entire family. They tend to invest their income directly into food, school fees, health care and improving their homes.
Working with the last remaining group of eastern lowland gorillas on Earth has made all the challenges I have faced worth it. I love these peaceful and gentle animals. Each time I’m in contact with one of the groups, I’m eager to learn more about their behaviour and characteristics. Did you know that the silverback barely sleeps, but is always awake taking care of the family, from the smallest to the eldest members? They provide protection and security, and that is what I aspire to do for them as well …
Combining this kind of work with family life is not always easy, but at the same time, I feel like this is what I have to do to make the world a better place for my children. It gives me purpose.
Kahuzi-Biega photo moments by Marcus Westberg