Praveen Moman – The Visionary Conservationist Who Kickstarted Gorilla Tourism By Fiona Sanderson

The Luxury Channel meets Praveen Moman, the founder of Volcanoes Safaris and a pioneer in reviving gorilla and chimpanzee tourism in Rwanda and Uganda for the past 20 years….

Image courtesy of Volcanoes Safaris

A visionary conservationist and named as one of the world’s top twenty-five conservation-philanthropists, Praveen Moman is the founder of Volcanoes Safaris (unique lodges near the great ape parks that are sensitive to local culture and aesthetics), and has helped kickstart gorilla tourism after the Rwanda genocide through the Volcanoes Safaris BLCF Partnership Project. Praveen also aims to create long-term, self-sustaining projects that enrich the livelihoods of local communities, and promotes the conservation of the great apes through his non-profit Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust (VSPT).

Twenty years ago, Volcanoes Safaris was the first company to set up simple camps in the areas around the gorilla parks in Uganda, first at Mount Gahinga and at Bwindi, and later at Kyambura Gorge. Through a sustained development and investment program, the properties have been gradually improved as the region has opened up, and a major upgrading program throughout 2017 completed their transformation to luxury lodges – each is now a luxurious haven in which to escape following a busy day of gorilla trekking. Today, Volcanoes Safaris is the leading luxury lodge company in Uganda and Rwanda, and it has been at the forefront of reviving gorilla and chimpanzee tourism in the region since 1997.

Image courtesy of Robin François

In 2000, Volcanoes Safaris became the first international safari company to take clients to Rwanda. In 2004, they opened Virunga Lodge, becoming the first international company to build a lodge near the gorilla park after the war. Today, Virunga Lodge is one of Africa’s leading lodges, offering the “luxury gorilla experience.”

The luxury lodges are located at:

• Virunga Lodge – The Luxury Gorilla Experience in Rwanda
• Mount Gahinga – The Batwa Culture & Hiking Lodge in Uganda
• Bwindi – The Jungle Gorilla Lodge in Uganda
• Kyambura Gorge Lodge – The Contemporary Chimpanzee & Wildlife Lodge in Uganda

Over the course of the last twenty years, Volcanoes Safaris has sought to develop lodges that are sensitive to local culture, that connect to the local community, and that seek to use resources responsibly, minimising the environmental impact by using solar power and recycling water wherever possible, and by harvesting rain water whenever they can.

Image courtesy of Volcanoes Safaris

The company also employs over a hundred staff in Rwanda and Uganda, most of whom are based at the lodges. Empowering local staff at all levels of management is a key aspect of the company philosophy and is exceptional among leading lodge companies. Staff from across the region – Rwanda, Uganda, DRC and Burundi – benefit from extensive training programs, meaning that they offer an exceptional level of service to guests at the lodges.

As for founder Praveen, he was born and grew up on safari in Uganda before the expulsion of the Asian community brought his family to Britain when he was a teenager. Having set up Volcanoes Safaris, he now contributes to the rebuilding of the Great Lakes region and divides his time between Africa and London. Praveen’s responsibilities include designing and building Volcanoes’ eco-lodges, the training and empowerment of staff, developing the company’s Eco-tourism Partnership program and taking Volcanoes Safaris forwards as the leading great apes brand in Africa. Praveen regularly lectures in the USA and Europe on the unique great ape eco-tourism model that Volcanoes Safaris has created, and acts as a consultant to governments and non-profit organisations on developing great apes eco-tourism elsewhere in Africa. He shares his thoughts and experiences with us….

Image courtesy of Volcanoes Safaris

Why is visiting gorillas such a unique experience?

It’s a life-changing experience – you can have a dog or a cat but seeing a gorilla is like something of your own past. You arrive in the forest and come across these marooned creatures who are like family, and that’s why it effects people so much. People say it is often the most important moment of their life.

Can you tell us about your work with the Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust?

The VSPT was established in 2009, and it is a non-profit organisation that connects Volcanoes’ Rwanda and Uganda luxury lodges to the neighbouring communities and conservation activities. The VSPT aims to create long-term, self-sustaining projects that enrich the livelihoods of local communities, promote the conservation of the great apes, restore natural habitats and work with communities and institutions to reduce human-wildlife conflict. With international attention on conservation of the endangered mountain gorillas, the Mgahinga part of the Virunga volcanoes in Uganda was turned into a national park in 1991 to provide protection to the wildlife from poaching and habitat encroachment. The creation of the park required the Batwa to be removed from their homes in the mountains and be displaced in a modern world unfamiliar to them. The Batwa ended up squatting in nearby farm land. They earned a living through occasional labour or begging. With limited education, adapting to the modern world has been a difficult journey for them. They do not have resources or land and suffer from acute poverty, malnutrition and poor health. A group of about 18 Batwa families from those displaced live in makeshift shelters on a tiny rocky site at Musasa, about 4 kilometres from the entrance of Mgahinga National Park and Volcanoes’ Mount Gahinga Lodge, surviving as best as they can. The VSTP has made considerable progress in creating a permanent settlement for the Gahinga community of Batwa pygmies. A site of about ten acres of land was acquired next to the Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, and the construction of homes for these 18 families (105 adults and children) is well underway.

Image courtesy of Black Bean Productions

How large is the habitat that we are talking about?

It’s a tiny area of 700 square kilometres compared to say, the Serengeti Park which is 30,000 square kilometres. We are talking about the heart of Africa where the borders of DRC, Uganda and Rwanda meet. It is also one of the poorest regions – with most people earning less than $2 per day. Population density is also a big issue. Here, it’s about 600 – 700 people per square kilometre compared to the population of the USA, which is 100 people per square kilometre.

Do you believe that supporting local communities is the way forward, and the only way to ensure the long-term survival of the gorilla?

I would argue that we need to change the paradigm of gorilla tourism and conservation, and make them central to the economic mainstream so communities have a stake in the survival of the gorillas and their habitat. Only by putting bread on the table of local people and giving their children a better future will we ensure that gorilla conservation works. Does this not require a radical rethink by those of us who are privileged, so we support conservation and tourism not for ourselves, but in order to support the local communities who ultimately can save the gorillas? Tourism is one element which brings money, but too much tourism causes stress on the gorillas. Dian Fossey didn’t want tourism at all and thought it would be detrimental to the gorillas. In my opinion, if you had no tourism at all, I don’t think the gorillas would survive.

For further information about Volcanoes Safaris and the work that Praveen Moman and his team are doing, visit www.volcanoessafaris.com.