Legendary gorilla conservationist John Kahekwa (right) paid a visit to the Gorilla Organization's London office this week, just days after receiving the prestigious Goldman Sachs Whitley Award for Nature.
John, whose uncle established the Kahuzi Biega National Park in DR Congo, has been working with gorillas for more than 30 years, starting out as a ranger and tourist guide before setting up his own community conservation NGO, the Pole Pole Foundation (POPOF) in 1992. Almost from the very start, POPOF worked in partnership with the Gorilla Organization to get the communities living alongside Kahuzi Biega actively involved in conservation efforts, with great success.
For instance, as well as planting millions of trees, POPOF has also set up schools, with 40 students having gone on to gain state diplomas in agro-forestry, while also helping former wildlife poachers turn their lives around and gain a viable living from making wooden carvings of gorillas to sell to tourists.
For his remarkable achievements, John received his Whitley Award from Princess Anne at a special ceremony attended by leading conservationists from around the world. He then dropped by the Gorilla Organization's office and met with staff and the board of trustees before speaking at Kings College. Here, he acknowledged the support given to POPOF from the start, noting that, without this seed funding, his foundation would never have got off the ground.
"Just after we started, war erupted across the east of DR Congo, driving the tourists away. So, without the help of international partners like the Gorilla Organization, we would never have succeeded," he said.
With calm now returning to eastern DR Congo, John also set out his ambitions to expand the scope of POPOF's work. As well as working with communities living alongside the Kahuzi Biega National Park – home to a vitally-important population of endangered eastern lowland gorillas – plans are in place to replicate the success and work with people living in other parts of the region.