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Monday, 23 April, 2001, 03:55 GMT 04:55 UK
Gorillas' friend wins global award
Armed park rangers Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI
Rangers on patrol: The work is dangerous and sometimes unpaid
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A Rwandan man is among six people to win an international award given annually for outstanding service to the environment.

Eugene Rutagarama, a biologist working for the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP), has been honoured for his work to save mountain gorillas during and after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Mr Rutagarama risked his life to protect the animals and support those caring for them.

He is one of this year's recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize, which the organisers say is "given annually to environmental heroes" representing the different continents.

Local projects

Each recipient will receive $125,000 at a ceremony in San Francisco on 23 April.

Rutagarama portrait Goldman Environmental Prize
Eugene Rutagarama
Mr Rutagarama says he will use his prize to help national park staff and people living around two parks in Rwanda, Nyungwe Forest and the Volcano park in the Virunga mountains.

On a stopover in London, he told BBC News Online: "I want to use the money on projects they choose. Virunga straddles three countries, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

"As the IGCP's programme manager I'm responsible for staff in all three. And those in the DRC haven't been paid for the last six years."

Mr Rutagarama, a Tutsi, first had to flee Rwanda in 1960, when he was four years old. He and his family were forced into exile four more times before the 1994 conflict which killed almost a million people.

Among them were most of his relatives, including both parents and two brothers.

National symbol

Yet he remains intent on working to save the mountain gorillas, the world's rarest primates. Only about 650 surviving globally, more than half of whom are in Virunga.

Gorilla head-on Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI
Eye contact is not advised
Mr Rutagarama said: "When I learnt about extinct species at university I made the link with Rwanda's gorillas. So I felt a kind of duty to contribute to their survival.

"They're a sort of national symbol - each page of a Rwandan passport is watermarked with the image of a gorilla.

"After a humanitarian disaster as horrific as genocide, the common struggle to preserve something of shared value can form an ideal for people to believe in, and can assist the reconstruction of a devastated society.

"There are a lot of people taking care of people. There aren't many who are concerned for the gorillas."

Immediately after the genocide Mr Rutagarama returned to Rwanda from Burundi, and became director of the Rwandan national parks programme.

The country's protected areas were at risk as the government tried to resettle more than 2m people, and Mr Rutagarama devised a successful plan to revive the Office of Tourism and National Parks.

Avoiding ambush

He repeatedly risked his life by travelling in rebel-held territory in the DRC to deliver funds and equipment to park rangers there.

Tourist photographing gorilla Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI
Tourists can help the gorillas to survive
He says: "I was lucky not to be ambushed in the forest. Sometimes my staff would warn me to stay out of harm's way.

"It is the militias that are still the threat to the gorillas - they've killed some of them to deter tourists.

"The gorilla population has begun increasing because of the courage of the field staff and the support of our partners.

"I've worked with gorillas for years. You communicate with them through eye contact. Tourists are always advised not to do that, but if you work with them, then inevitably you do."

"I've never once experienced any aggression from them. I know some animals as individuals."

Gorilla and ranger photos courtesy of Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

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