Endangered Species Handbook

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Vanishing Species

Human Tragedy and the Looting of Virunga's Treasures: Page 2

     A major underlying cause of Rwanda's civil war and the great suffering of its people is its uncontrolled population growth.  In 1973, Rwanda's population reached 3,980,000 in a country whose total area is only 10,169 square miles--smaller than Maryland (Anon. 1975).  This resulted in a ratio of 391 persons per square mile, one of the densest in the world.  Populations continued to grow, however, and by 1992, they topped 8,206,000, with a density of 806 persons per square mile (Anon. 1994a).  The country became increasingly crowded, as arable land became scarce.  Competition for land had become intense.  Much of Rwanda is eroded and barren, the thin tropical topsoil producing crops for only a few years after the forest has been cleared.  Only 22 percent of the land remains forested (Wright 2001).  Farmers slash and burn more forest for planting when land ceases to produce crops or grazing grasses.  Steep, erodable slopes are being plowed right up to the limits of protected parks and reserves.  The feuding between Hutu and Tutsi might have been peacefully settled if not for the extreme poverty and overpopulation.  The average per capita income in 1999 was $720 per year (Wright 2001).
      The war’s massacres killed almost 1 million people, leaving an estimated 7.2 million people by 2,000, according to unofficial estimates (Wright 2001).  Unless birth control becomes widely accepted in Rwanda, human populations will rise to an estimated 11 million people within a few decades.  Some experts believe that nearly 22 million people will occupy Rwanda by 2020 (Anon. 1994a).  By the latter estimate, there will be 2,163 persons per square mile in Rwanda, far more than its land can support.  By contrast, the population density in the United States in 2000 was 76 persons per square mile, and Canada's, 8 persons per square mile (Wright 2001).

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