By Phoebe Parke, Marc Hoeferlin
(CNN)Working as a warden in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park, home to the endangered mountain gorilla, Edwin Sabuhoro was determined to do whatever was necessary to protect the animals he was committed to defend -- including putting himself in harm's way.
Following a series of incidents in 2004 where wildlife had been lost, Sabuhoro volunteered to infiltrate poachers on their own turf by disguising as a potential buyer for a baby gorilla. The mission was successful and the culprits were put to prison.
"I felt so bad that I had put these people in jail -- but I felt so good that I saved a baby gorilla," recalls Sabuhoro, whose next move was to visit the jailed poachers, as well as their families, to apologize for tricking them and find the reasons behind their actions.
What he heard was stories of starvation and desperation. Poaching, he found, was the only way for these people to survive.
"That's when I decided that what I was doing was not part of giving a solution to what is wanted outside the park," says Sabuhoro. He quickly decided to quit the job and come up with an idea to help poachers make a living -- a plan that didn't include killing wildlife.
"I thought of an idea of turning poachers to farmers," says Sabuhoro, who took all of his savings -- $2,000 -- and divided it to poachers to rent land, buy seeds and start farming. "I left them with that and they started farming, and when I came back six months after I found they had harvested enough -- they had enough food at home, but they were [also] selling more in the markets."
Transforming human lives, saving wildlife
But Sabuhoro wasn't finished. While talking to tourists who came to visit the volcanoes, Sabuhoro came up with an idea to capitalize on their interest in the area, and provide work for former poachers.
"I started a tour company called Rwanda Eco Tours, and I said for tourism to thrive in the country we need eco-tourism where tourists can give back to the community and then the communities will have an incentive to conserve the park. So we built a cultural village in 2006 -- before we finished, we had tourists visiting us." he says. "In 2010, we got $30,000 net income from the cultural village and put this back to different activities in the village level."
Sabuhoro, whose work with the cultural village has received international recognition, including a chance to briefly meet U.S. president Barack Obama as a Young African Leader, is now trying to take his idea further to other national parks across Africa where poaching is causing similar problems.
"If we can work together, on a regional level, continent level, we can save these species," he says. "Because these are the last species that we have. And as human beings we can't afford to fail the wildlife." Photos.