Alternative fuel project counters deforestation threat to gorilla park

An insidious threat to Virunga National Park, home to the largest population of rare mountain gorillas and numerous other species of wildlife, has been the illegal charcoal trade. [Read the National Geographic News story: Congo Gorilla Killings Fueled by 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 Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda in Africa’s equatorial highlands. That has spurred illegal charcoal operations in Africa’s oldest national park.


A three-year-old mountain gorilla watches MGVP vets in the Virunga rain forest.

Photo by Molly Feltner, via MGVP

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. [Watch the National Geographic video: Gorilla Massacre Investigation.] 

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.


ICCN’s Energy Production Program Head, Jean Bosco Bichamakara teaches Rwandans how to make fuel briquettes.

Photo by Molly Feltner, via MGVP

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 Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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.

“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 Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC,” MGVP said.

“Alternatively, briquettes, which are made using recycled paper and discarded plant materials like rice sheaves, are cheaper and cleaner-burning. As an added benefit, the production and sale of briquettes offers locals in this economically depressed region the chance to earn extra income.”


The briquette technology, which has been championed in DRC by ICCN officials in Virunga National Park, was brought to Rwanda at the request of MGVP. In the photo: a briquette (left) vs. charcoal.

Photo by Molly Feltner, via MGVP 

“Deforestation from the charcoal trade is a threat to the mountain gorilla habitat in Rwanda, DRC, and Uganda and the use of charcoal causes respiratory illness in the human population, which can be passed on to gorillas,” said John Huston, MGVP’s agriculture project coordinator. “When we saw the success of ICCN’s briquette program in Congo, we thought it was vital to bring the technology to Rwanda.”

Jean Bosco Bichamakara, the head of ICCN’s Energy Production Program, led a two-day briquette making workshop in Musanze for Rwandans participating in MGVP’s agriculture partner program and members of the Kinigi community living near Volcanoes National Park, who were sponsored by Art of Conservation, an organization dedicated to educating Rwandans about conservation, MGVP said.

“Although we use charcoal now, we know we need to use a different kind of fuel because we need the forest to produce rain for our crops and clean air to keep us healthy.”

“Although we use charcoal now, we know we need to use a different kind of fuel because we need the forest to produce rain for our crops and clean air to keep us healthy,” said Cecile Nyirabahutu, a Kinigi community leader. “Briquette-making will also help our community earn money so we can better take care of our families.”

Immaculee Uwimana, one of MGVP’s agriculture partners, is using a briquette press donated by ICCN to start the initial production of briquettes.

MGVP recently purchased Uwimana’s first batch of 500 briquettes to use at the MGVP headquarters in Musanze.

Bichamakara estimates that once Uwimana and her team are more practiced, they will be able to make 1,000 briquettes per day–enough fuel to supply a typical Rwandan family of eight for a month. MGVP and Art of Conservation plan to work together with local artisans to build more presses.

Much effort is still necessary to ensure the success of fuel briquettes in Rwanda, MGVP added. “In addition to building more presses, MGVP and Art of Conservation will coordinate future trainings and marketing and begin a community recycling program to collect materials for making the briquettes. MGVP will also purchase briquettes for use at their facilities to help establish a market for the new fuel.”

“This is one small step forward in the greater process of eliminating the charcoal problem in the Virungas,” said Julie Ghrist, director of Art of Conservation. “But by working together–different countries, different organizations, and different groups of local people–we have a much greater chance of success in the long run.”


Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn