Ranger In Rwanda: Lessons Learned From Battling the Poachers


The story of a game ranger who came to sympathise with poachers in Rwanda has great resonance for the world of business, writes Chris Nichols.

Edwin Sabuhoro was a lawyer turned game ranger in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, which is home to the famous mountain gorillas, hunted almost to extinction by poaching. In 2004, Edwin was a member of the park management team, and had a problem. The team heard that someone was selling a baby gorilla for US$2,000. They knew that for a poacher to obtain the infant, both the mother and the silverback had to be killed. What could be done to stop this?

Sabuhoro volunteered to go undercover and pose as a buyer, accompanying unknown guides deep into the forest to meet the poachers. It was risky work, but the undercover operation resulted in the poachers being caught and jailed. Surely the operation was a success? But Sabuhoro had his doubts. He felt uncomfortable about being deceptive and set out to speak with the families of the poachers.

When he met the father of a jailed poacher, Sabuhoro faced a tough and transformative conversation. The older man asked him: “In our position what would you do? Let your 10 children starve, or accept money to capture and poach gorillas?” Sabuhoro realised that in their shoes, he would become a poacher too. He realised that being a ranger wasn’t the way to stop the poaching.

He took US$2,000 – his life savings – and bought land to use as a community farming space to allow the poaching families to grow food. This worked. Over time he expanded the activity, starting a cultural village and a series of eco-tours (see www. rwandaecotours.com).

The tours and the cultural village earn money that provides both work for the people and more land for farming. Now over 1,000 families are included within the project and poaching has fallen by 40 per cent. In some ways this is an exceptional story, in its display of courage and its successful outcomes. But in other ways it is starkly familiar. I meet many leaders in my coaching practice who like Sabuhoro come to realise that they are pushing water uphill. They find that they are working like crazy, but not having the impact they want to have, trying to transform a complex system but pushing in the wrong places.

Sabuhoro’s story has a lot to teach all of us:

Lesson one:

Sabuhoro cares. He gave up a law career to become a ranger, and he gave up being a ranger to become an entrepreneur. What didn’t change in all of that was his purpose. Right at the heart of this story is a determination to protect gorillas. That matters, because the personal cost and risk in this story was huge.

Lesson two:

Sabuhoro shifted his place in the system. When he met the poachers’ families he realised that being a ranger wasn’t the right place to intervene to address the problem. This is a great illustration of environmental scientist Donella Meadows’ work on intervention points in systems. Instead of making a low-level intervention to police the problem, Sabuhoro made a high-level systemic intervention in order to change physical and mental relationships. Edwin now has ex-poachers working with him as protectors of the gorillas because they have come to see the ecosystem as their new livelihood. They now feed their families by keeping gorillas alive, not by killing them.

Lesson three:

Edwin learned from a tough conversation. Stirred by his unease at deceiving the poachers, he had the courage and curiosity to face up to the reality of their lives. The conversation that followed was brutal in its truth and catalytic in its impact. This reminds me of communication expert Susan Scott’s authoritative work on Fierce Conversations. In having the guts to step into the reality of the poachers’ world, Edwin transformed his understanding of the system. It was an insight that only ‘fierce conversation’ could give.

This is one of my favourite stories. But it isn’t a comfortable or easy read if you take it personally. For me it raises some powerful questions:

• What is the tough conversation I am avoiding that could change the way IseethissystemIamin?DoIhave the courage to hear things that will challenge my world deeply?

• How willing am I to play different roles in this system? Do I have the creativity and courage to move to a position where my intervention can have more leverage?

• What do I care about enough to put myself at risk? Right at the heart of leadership for systems transformation has to stand a purpose for which I am prepared to take a real personal risk. What’s yours?


Chris Nichols is an Ashridge accredited coach and an experienced boardroom consultant and facilitator. See www.linkedin.com/in/chrisnicholst2i or follow him on Twitter @chrisnicholsT2i


Photo credit: Justin Elson from flickr

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Chris Nichols is entrepreneur, educator, writer, speaker and artist. He is a director at Ashridge, and at his own companies, including GameShift and MouseHouse Media. He works worldwide, developing creative strategic leadership responses with leaders addressing the world’s most complex and pressing challenges.