The four gorilla subspecies, which exist in the wild include mountain gorilla, eastern lowland (Grauer’s gorilla), western lowland and cross river gorilla. Conservation of these great apes jointly spans across 10 African states including Uganda, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Cameroon and Angola.
The countries united together in 2008 under a legal framework called the Gorilla Agreement concerned with research, education and protection of tropical forests. The concerted efforts have much helped in the recovery process of mountain gorilla population which was once on the verge of extinction. At some point rather in the 1980’s, it was estimated that less than 400 mountain gorillas remained. The primary threats to their survival including habitat loss, poaching, infectious diseases and armed civil conflicts become worse due to high human demand for natural resources among the people living around the gorilla habitats. Despite the threats, the number of gorillas has seen tremendous growth with 1063 individuals now living in the wild according to the latest statistics by Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI) based in Rwanda. There are two natural geographical ranges of mountain gorillas. They include Virunga Conservation Area with 604 individuals which encompass Mgahinga Gorilla, Volcanoes and Virunga National Parks in Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo respectively and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda famous for harboring half of their population with 459 individuals. A number of factors have contributed to the successful gorilla conservation in East and central Africa including gorilla tourism, local community involvement among others such as security as explained below: –
Habituation of Mountain Gorillas
Gorilla habituation is a long term research process of introducing a family of wild gorillas to human presence. It’s the basis upon which gorilla tourism depends. The first attempts begun in the 1960s with uncontrolled commercial tourist visits to wild gorillas in Rwanda. Due to little attention for conservation which was a threat to gorillas, conservation organizations including World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and Fauna and Flora International (FFI) formed the first official gorilla tourism program in 1979. The project begun with habituation of two gorilla families in Volcanoes National Park Rwanda for tourism purposes with strict limitation on the number of people and visits. Visits to gorillas generated local employment and revenue which was then used to fund for conservation activities that Dian Fossey had introduced to deal with threats to gorillas including ant-poaching patrols and community involvement. The program was introduced in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park with habituation of 3 gorilla families in Buhoma sector which attracted gorilla trekking safaris. By habituating more gorillas the revenue generated from the sale of gorilla permits also increased. Funds are used in paying park rangers who protect the protected areas, giving back to the local community through tourism revenue sharing program in development of schools, health centers and clean water. With improved livelihoods of locals, there was has been reduction of poaching and other forms of encroachment which keeps the gorilla habitats safe.
Research and Intervention
Scientific research has been an integral part of conserving the endangered mountain gorillas and their natural habitat. Dian Fossey established Karisoke Research Center in 1967 in Volcanoes National Park Rwanda. She pioneered active conservation strategies such as anti-poaching patrols which helped to protect gorillas against poaching and encroachment. Fossey’s works inspired the formation of Ranger Patrol Monitoring Units by the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP) in 1991. In the early years of gorilla tourism, research helped to provide reliable information on the ecology, behavior and health of gorillas in relation to tourists visits.
Subsequently, gorilla rules and regulations were developed to human stress on the gorillas. Despite the increasing gorilla trekking safaris, the primates have remained in their natural state due to responsible tourism practices. More recently, field studies by Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI) across Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo proved that there’s high risk for transmission of infectious diseases including flu, covid-19 and Ebola between humans and gorillas. Through daily monitoring patrols, rangers and gorilla doctors are able to identify threats and make necessary interventions to treat sick or injured gorillas. Female gorillas give birth to one offspring every after 4 years. Due to the low birthrates, it has taken much longer almost 50 years for the gorilla population to increase to 1063 individuals in the wild. According to a paper published in the journey of Science daily, the importance of scientific research in gorilla conservation is paramount especially for gorilla trekking amidst covid-19 pandemic, the new gorilla rules include wearing of face masks and regular use of disinfectants. For those planning a gorilla tour with interest in understanding how gorilla research works can participate in gorilla habituation experience available in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, famous for harboring half of the world mountain gorilla population (over 400 individuals which is almost half of 1063 gorilla population in the world). Gorilla habituation offers 4 hours to spend with semi-habituated gorillas and is done in Rushaga sectors southern part of Bwindi.
Gorilla Trekking Safaris
Gorilla trekking not only offers a chance to visit gorillas for 1 hour in their natural habitat but also a great way to contribute towards their conservation. The gorilla permit cost in Rwanda is $1500, $700 in Uganda and $400 in Democratic Republic of Congo. Gorilla tourism generates huge amount of money which is used to fund conservation activities including gorilla based research, anti-poaching and security which helps to keep the park off from encroachment. Additionally, the tourism agencies including Uganda Wildlife Authority and Rwanda Development Board give back 10% of the permit fees into community development projects. These include schools, health centers including Bwindi Community Hospital, clean piped water, roads and improved market for their agricultural produce such as honey, food and handmade crafts. The livelihoods of people living near the gorilla parks improves in favor of conservation. Those visiting Uganda or Rwanda for gorilla safari are encouraged to visit local community tourism projects that were set up to help people living on the edge of the park including Iby’iwacu cultural village in Rwanda. That way, your gorilla safari will positively contribute to conservation.
People living near the gorilla habitats depend on natural resources for livelihood including use of forests for firewood, food, timber and water. When Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks were gazette in 1991, the Batwa pygmies were evicted from their ancestral home. In order to allow sustainable tourism and limit possible human-gorilla conflicts, the Uganda Wildlife Authority formed the Community Conservation Program. Empowering locals through jobs as park rangers, wardens, porters and human-gorilla conflict resolution teams are responsible for chasing the primates when they encroach on community farmlands.
In the same manner, the ex-poachers living near Volcanoes National Park with support from the Rwandan Development Board (RDB), formed a cooperative known as Amizero. They are actively involved in protection of mountain gorillas through coordinated ranger patrols and creating awareness against illegal activities. Poaching and encroachment is almost non-existence in Rwanda which allows the gorillas to thrive. Active participation of local communities has therefore increased awareness and support for gorilla conservation.
Furthermore, the locals have started community tourism activities as alternative ways of income which reduces overdependence on the forests for survival. For instance, the Batwa trail in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park offers a chance to learn about their hunter gatherer traditions including the pre-historic ancient fire making Batwa style. Village walks in Buhoma one of the four Bwindi gorilla trekking sectors offers an authentic cultural experience including banana beer brewing activity, visiting a traditional healer for his stunning metaphysics. Gorilla tours in Rwanda offer an opportunity to visit Iby’iwacu cultural center near Volcanoes National Park for a cultural tour. Furthermore, locals are involved in mitigation of human-gorilla wildlife conflicts thereby becoming ambassadors for conservation. Additionally, locals make and sale arts and crafts, food restaurants and bars including the Bwindi Bar in Buhoma sector the headquarters of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.