For many a traveller the most exciting and memorable part of a safari is seeing Africa's animals in the wild and getting up-close to them. When it comes to animal encounters (getting up-close) and interactions (touching, walking with, or riding animals) several important, often controversial, ethical questions inevitably arise.
Many of the non-profits and businesses that offer these "wild" activities market their animal adventures as being beneficial to the species involved and for wildlife conservation as a whole.
The truth is that animal encounters are, unfortunately, not always good for the animals or for conservation. Safari-goers have the chance to participate in thrilling wildlife-related activities at their own discretion, which means that you can be selective and boycott questionable operations and damaging activities, by staying informed. Although programs where animals are kept and bred in captivity are the main ones under scrutiny, it is also worth questioning whether tourism activities with free-roaming wild animals are ethically sound. This brings me to the case in point - going gorilla trekking to see the critically endangered African Mountain Gorillas in the rainforests of Central Africa.
The key question: is gorilla trekking in Central Africa good or bad for the conservation of these great apes?
Questioning the impact of gorilla trekking on the conservation of this species is especially crucial, because gorillas are so critically endangered. The World Wildlife Fund reports that there are only 880 individual mountain gorillas left in the world today.
Considering that African mountain gorillas have few natural predators and that human beings are the primary force driving this species to extinction - it's critical that we ask ourselves: will going gorilla trekking further threaten the survival of this incredibly vulnerable species, or will it help save them from extinction? Is tourism in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) helping with gorilla conservation?
To unpack the potentially harmful impacts of gorilla trekking, the main threats to the remaining wild gorilla populations need to be considered.
The Main Threats to Wild Gorilla Populations
- Habitat loss (deforestation)
- Transmission of human diseases
- Human conflict (civil war and political unrest)
- Hunting (bushmeat and trophies)
- Human-wildlife conflict
Of these threats to mountain gorillas in Africa, the spread of contagious diseases is the most prominent danger exacerbated by gorilla trekking. Exposing mountain gorillas to more people, more frequently, is the area where trekking has the greatest potential for harm, by increasing the chances of transmitting human diseases to the gorillas.
#1 Threat of Tourism - the Risk of Transmitting Human Diseases to Gorillas
Gorillas and humans share 98.5% of the same genes, which makes these primates highly susceptible to human-borne infectious diseases. These infectious diseases are easily transmitted from humans to gorillas, which means that increased contact with these primates results in higher health risks (for the gorillas). Problem human diseases affecting gorilla populations include diarrhea, scabies and tuberculosis. Gorillas do not have the same immune systems as humans to fight off our diseases, leaving them vulnerable.
In the past, two gorillas in Rwanda have been infected and subsequently died, as a result of contact with tourists, acording to one of Africa's leading scientists and conservationists, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka.
In response to the risks of bringing people into contact wild gorillas, national park authorities accompany visitors to ensure that the regulations are adhered to strictly. In the rainforests that span the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC, an official permit is required to go gorilla trekking, which is carefully controlled to reduce the risk of transmitting preventable diseases to the gorillas. Gorilla trekking is a well-regulated, closely guided activity - a wild expedition, but not a reckless one.
Measures in Place - Trekking Permits & Regulations
Expensive permits are required for gorilla trekking in Volcanoes (Rwanda), Virunga (DRC), and Bwindi and Mgahinga (Uganda) national parks and these need to be arranged in advance. A limited number of trekking permits are issued, in order to restrict the number of tourist groups, as well as the size of the groups, that visit the gorillas each day.
The regulations are more or less the same in the four national parks of the three countries where trekking takes place. The park authorities brief visitors on the regulations, before they set off with the trained rangers and their assistants, who help trekkers to maintain good gorilla trekking etiquette.
For gorilla trekking in the DRC, the Virunga National Park authorities stipulate that;
"To safeguard the health of Virunga’s gorillas, visitors will be required to wear surgical masks (provided) when in the presence of gorillas. Time with the gorillas is strictly limited to one hour. If you don’t feel well, have a fever, diarrhea, or persistent sore throat – please do not go on the trek. Mountain gorillas are extremely susceptible to human illnesses. Gorillas have died after being exposed to human respiratory viruses and other common ailments."
The tour operators and lodges that help tourists book their treks, get their permits and travel to and from the ranger stations, also keep visitors informed. One of the tour companies working with African Budget Safaris in Uganda, African Pearl Safaris, reminds clients that trekking is not permitted if you have so much as a cold and asks visitors to speak to their guides if they experience any flu-like symptoms.
The most important rule is to maintain a distance of between 7 and 10 metres from the gorillas, helping to minimize contact and thus the spread of viruses. The problem with this rule is that the gorillas sometimes approach people, coming closer than is recommended.
If a gorilla approaches you, the instructions are to stay put, not make any sudden movements and avert your gaze to avoid appearing confrontational. This means gorillas and people get closer to each other than the safe distance required - one of the reasons why trekking with surgical masks on, is highly recommended, even in areas where masks are not required.
Speaking to Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, also a board member of the UWA, she told us that the wildlife authorities in Uganda are exploring the option of tourists and all visitors being required to wear face masks during the hour-long visits with the mountain gorillas.
Groups are limited to a one hour visit with the gorillas and only eight people are allowed to go trekking at a time, with up to three groups tracking in a day. If you sneeze or cough, you are asked to cover your mouth and turn away from the gorillas, another case where wearing masks improves safety and is therefore a responsible precaution to protect the primates.
Other Support - Veterinary & Health Care
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) employs enough veterinary officers in the conservation areas to keep the mountain gorillas healthy, according to a local lodge, Bunyonyi Overland Resort. In addition, African Pearl Safaris tells us that gorillas have been successfully treated by the Gorilla Doctors. This non-profit organization provides life-saving medical care in all three countries where wild mountain gorillas are found - Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC.
In Uganda a well-established non-profit organization called Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) is also working to improve health care in local communities and to educate people about disease transmission, livestock issues, mountain gorillas and human health. Founded and run by Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka, CTPH is currently researching disease transmission between humans and gorillas, including the impacts that growing numbers of tourists have on the health and well-being of gorilla populations in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.
To find out more about the work that CTPH is doing in Uganda and watch three interviews with Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka, visit this CNN post - Are human viruses killing world's last remaining gorillas?
Other Threats: Habitat Loss, Poaching, Hunting, Human Conflict & Human-Wildlife Conflict
The gorilla trekking tourism industry is largely having a positive impact on the communities in and around the national parks. Contributing to community upliftment in poverty-stricken areas, tourism offers employment and economic benefits that create positive spin-offs for gorilla conservation. As local people benefit from gorilla tourism and learn more about these primates their relationship with the great apes shifts.
Human-wildlife conflict is reduced when people understand the gorillas better and have a vested interest in the well-being of the species. The gorillas are increasingly seen as income-generating resources that are valuable as long-term tourist attractions.
The growth in local investments, both economic and social, provide an impetus to protect the gorillas, so that the rewards continue in terms of education, health care and economic stimulation. Formerly viewed as competitors for habitat, unfortunate casualties in hunting snares, sources of food, hunting trophies and targets for unsustainable cash injections from poaching, the gorillas are now being conserved as a result of tourism and related social and research projects.
In some cases, poachers have turned into game rangers, now working on anti-poaching patrols that play an indispensable role in keeping the gorillas alive.
One of our major tour providers, Nomad Africa, partners with Bunyonyi Overland Resort for treks into Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda. Speaking to Bunyonyi Overland Resort, one of the main benefits of gorilla trekking tourism is that 20% of the trekking fees is going back into the local communities of the area. Part of the permit fee is used to protect the gorillas, paying ranger salaries and funding anti-poaching measures.
In Rwanda some 10% of the revenue from gorilla trekking tourism goes towards community projects around the Volcanoes National Park, reinforcing the positive impacts of gorilla trekking and making the conservation of these gentle primates meaningful to rural communities in concrete and practical ways.
Gorilla ecotourism in Uganda, is a financial lifeline for impoverished locals as "each gorilla group brings a minimum of $1 million annually to the surrounding communities, in addition to providing employment in the tourism industry", says Dr Kalema-Zikusoka of the CTPH in a CNN interview. The value of gorilla trekking tourism goes beyond the socio-economic advantages, to positive political, safety and security implications in historically unstable regions.
Excuse us, are we disturbing you?
Gorilla tourism does however affect the highly social primates that we stalk and photograph in the rainforests of Africa. We do have an impact on the natural behaviour of gorillas that become habituated, as Bunyonyi Overland Resort, says:
"The trekking of gorillas is causing a bit of discomfort among the gorillas through photographing & filming them, carrying out research on them, since you have to monitor and move with them all the time."
The restrictions already discussed are also aimed at minimizing disturbance - keeping a respectful distance from the gorillas, limiting the number of visitors per group and the number of groups per day. Guidelines to limit the interference created by humans, include; lowering your voice, not making any sudden movements and turning your flash off when taking photos. No spitting or littering is allowed in the conservation areas (yup, it actually needs to be specified). There is also no eating or drinking allowed around the giant apes.
The growing number of lodges and hotels located in and around the buffer zones and national parks also interferes with the natural habitat of the remaining gorillas to an extent, which is not ideal.
In short: Gorilla Trekking aids gorilla conservation - on the whole, it's good.
In summary, although gorilla trekking in Africa does add to the risk of exposing gorilla populations to human diseases, the tourism industry does not undermine gorilla conservation on the whole. That said, for the benefits of tourism to continue outweighting the , gorilla trekking needs to be managed effectively and carefully.
It's not all good, but as Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka says, tourism...
"provides an economic incentive and enables the community to get more involved in gorilla ecotourism and conservation".
Gorilla trekking tourism helps by supporting efforts to protect these endangered animals and improve conditions in local communities and the increasing number of tourists going to see the endangered gorillas in their natural habitat is proving to be a key factor in the fight for the survival of this species.
Every visitor who buys a gorilla permit to go trekking and pays the park authorities for trekking excursions, contributes to gorilla conservation by helping to fund the management of the reserves, the monitoring of gorillas and the salaries of rangers patrolling the forests to protect gorillas from poaching.
Every visitor that supports the local economies, stays in local lodges, hires local operators, participates in local activities and eats in local establishments, helps to create more healthy communities in and around the national parks that provide safe havens for the last gorillas in Central Africa's rainforests.
If you're off to trek with Africa's mountain gorillas, do so responsibly, by wearing a surgical mask while you are with the gorillas, following the rules and listening to your guides instructions in the forest. Most importantly, if you are feeling sick, even if you have the sniffles or a sore throat, do NOT go trekking.
To find out more about trekking responsibly and what the experience entails, check out our comprehensive Guide to Gorilla Trekking in Africa’s Rainforests.