Virunga Safaris and the magnificent Virunga Lodge in Rwanda are the brainchildren of a travelling conservationist by the name of Praveen Moman. He says, "Every time you see a gorilla it's kind of a new beginning, it's a new experience."
Back in 1966 at the age of twelve Praveen first came into contact with the Virunga Volcanoes and they have stuck with him ever since. It was at the same time that Dian Fossey started her pioneering research work with the gorillas of Rwanda in the Volcanoes National Park and beyond.
Everybody's life is unique and special and in Praveen's case his was quite complex, having travelled all over the world, but setting up Virunga 20 odd years ago has been a very emotional journey for him. Praveen's father was a colonial Civil Servant in East Africa who was born 100 years ago. Praveen's dad passed on the "wilderness bug" as he so aptly named to him and it has been in his blood ever since.
Praveen's playground remains Virunga in Rwanda
In the 1970's the Moman family became refugees to the U.K. In 1997 Praveen followed in his father's footsteps by returning to Rwanda to set up gorilla tourism.
Exploring Rwanda somehow became a forgotten part of his life, but he was drawn back and wanted to start up tourism in the area. He returned in the aftermath of the genocide, which was a volatile time marred by much political upheaval.
The start of Virunga Safaris and Virunga Lodge
The establishment of Virunga Safaris was followed closely in 2004 by the opening of Virunga Lodge. The lodge lies nestled between the 8 Virunga Volcanoes and these lie at the very heart of Africa.
Travel to Virunga is always very special, but as Praveen explains it was taken for granted as a child and only now as an adult can he appreciate the magnificence that is Virunga.
Virunga is where Africa meets
The boundaries of old colonial lines separated out into different countries here, but more importantly its where the mountain gorillas live.
Controlled tourism was introduced to the area in the mid-1980's as a way to preserve the endangered gorillas. Virunga Lodge was the first gorilla lodge built after the conflict in Rwanda. Furthermore, the Dian Fossey map room was built to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Karisoke Centre in the Virungas. This centre is the oldest research centre for gorillas and great apes in the world and lies close to Praveen's heart. The work of this centre still continues today.
Gorilla conservation - a real success story
There were said to be only 300 mountain gorillas in the Virungas back in the 1960's. Today there are over 600 in this region, a true testament to what can be achieved with proper conservation.
This is still a very precarious number and much work still needs to be done. A gorilla trekking experience forms part of this success story. When you come face-to-face with a gorilla it can be a very emotional experience and Praveen comments, "You see a little of yourself". Praveen is keen for posterity to leave the legacy of this species strong and intact.
Community inclusion is key to conservation
The Virungas are a tiny forest habitat, surrounded by the highest density of people in Africa. It is a true balancing act because the surrounding communities need to see the benefits of the forest, tourism, conservation and gorillas have for them.
Volcanoes Safaris believes that tourism revenue aiding the communities is key to protecting the gorillas and forests. The gorillas have been there for a long time, but so have the Batwa people. They are one of the oldest indigenous tribes in Africa. The colonial period saw the creation of many national parks which drove these people away from their homeland. This created a huge population of what is known as "conservation refugees".
It was only right that these people get back what belongs to them. Volcanoes Safaris has provided land for the Batwa community to build their own village at Mount Gahinga. The parks in Rwanda need to look after both wildlife and communities and this is the key to a successful outcome.
Conservation is also about people.
In the end, it's not just about hotels, it's about an experience. Virunga Safaris and Virunga Lodge intend to do what they do even better. The connection and relationship between conservation, tourism and the communities are deepening.
This magical place needs to be preserved and not destroyed.