Over the last two and a half decades, the combined mountain gorilla population of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo has increased to almost 900 from 620. What impact, if any, has responsible tourism had on this upswing?
There are the rules of gorilla engagement in Uganda. But it wasn’t always so.
We’d just walked through fields of crops next to a village en route to the edge of the forest in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. No barrier or physical border exists between the world of the mountain gorillas and that of the local villagers trying to make a living from the land in this lush region. Meeting the needs of both gorillas and villagers is a delicate balancing act.
How responsible tourism reconciles the intersection of gorilla populations and human development
Mountain gorilla populations face challenges in each of the three countries where the animals reside.
In Uganda, the growth of mountain gorilla trekking and tourism has helped protect gorillas through a transparent, multi-step process. As the government receives funding for conservation, it makes an effort to develop policy and processes to protect the animals and their habitat. There is significant economic benefit — for individual locals and the country at large — to protecting the gorillas and the forest national park they call home. The fees travelers pay for gorilla-trekking permits not only help fund staff that patrol the forest and protect gorillas from poachers and hunters, but they also help fund education and development in communities that border the gorilla habitat.
In the case of Uganda’s gorilla trekking, there is the economic motivation through tourism to protect the gorillas and their habitat from encroaching on local land development and farms, and vice versa. This is done partly by distributing part of the park fees to local communities, compensating for destroyed crops, and providing for environmental education.
There are also employment opportunities at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where locals can learn to work as gorilla-trekking guides, trackers, and scouts. In addition, with increased tourism traffic, there’s also an increase in economic activity and local employment in hotels, restaurants, and other area service providers.
The ultimate upshot is that, thanks to tourism done right, a live gorilla is now worth much more than a dead one.
And as a result, locals are much less likely to engage in hunting and poaching. The impact to the future of tourism, the health of local gorilla populations, and to local human communities is profound.
Respectful encounters with mountain gorillas
The bureaucracy and high fees surrounding mountain gorilla-trekking permits help limit the number of people each day at the national park, which thereby limits the daily exposure of the mountain gorillas to eager, camera-toting tourists. The entire process intends to preserve the “wildness” of the gorillas while maintaining an ample revenue stream from a sufficient number of travelers who pay for a gorilla encounter.
In order to manage this, each group of travelers is assigned to a different gorilla family, so as to avoid overwhelming any one family. The group is allowed one hour maximum with the gorilla family and is required to keep a safe and respectful distance. In addition, the National Park facilitates a pre-trek workshop that helps visitors understand how important the protection of mountain gorillas is to the greater ecosystem.
It’s true that visits from humans are an unnatural encounter for gorilla families , imagine a bunch of photographers and visitors entering your home for an hour each day. But, as stated earlier, the gorilla treks in Uganda provide motivation and funding to protect the gorillas themselves, and their habitat.
The experience is not only about the moments each group of travelers spends in the presence of these wild animals. it is also about how travelers play a role in the sustainable conservation efforts for these mountain gorillas.
Daniel Noll and Audrey Scott