MUSANZE, RWANDA - Some Rwandans who used to be wildlife poachers have turned into conservationists.

These days, Felicien Kabatsi sings about the importance of gorilla conservation. You wouldn’t know from his lyrics that he used to hunt gorillas and other wild animals in Volcanoes National Park in northern Rwanda.

He was a poacher for 30 years and served four months in jail for it. Then one day a buffalo killed his brother.

Kabatsi says they were hunting together. Arriving in the forest, his brother and his other friends took another way, and unfortunately, a buffalo killed his brother right away.

After talking with animal conservationists, Kabatsi had a change of heart and joined their side. He now makes a living at Gorilla Guardians Village, where he plays traditional musical instruments for tourists.

Changing minds

His story is similar to those of other members of this cooperative, like Mukanoheri Venantie. She used to go poaching with her husband.

She says “my husband used to carry spears, me, a machete with a bag to put in the meat of animals that we killed. But with training, and this project, they have changed their mindset.”

Now she refers to poaching as a serious crime and works in the village making traditional baskets for tourists.

Visitors to the park, like South African tourist Nelis Wolmarans, go on hikes to see the gorillas, but their money supports projects that aim to employ Rwandans and promote conservation.

“What they've done here, what they created here is an employment and opportunity for a lot of people that would previously use the forest for livelihood, let’s say subsistence living,” Wolmarans said.

Conservation boosts tourism

Government figures show conservation efforts are boosting tourism revenue, said Rwandan President Paul Kagame. 

“The support of the local communities, whom I have had the opportunity to express our thanks to. We also made sure that they benefit from this good cooperation,” he said.

In a bid to boost conservation and make Rwandans feel more connected to wildlife, Rwanda also began an annual gorilla naming ceremony in 2015. At this year’s event, 25 baby mountain gorillas were named, bringing the total number to 281.