Ecotourism successes: 1. Gorillas in the mist

Posted: 3 July 2001

Author: Anna Borzello

Half of the world's 630 mountain gorillas live in Uganda's remote Bwindi forest, where rich tourists provide essential income to conserve their habitat. Anna Borzello travelled to Bwindi to research this report.

The trekkers turned with their fingers on their lips. Ten feet away, in a small clearing, a Silverback lolled under a low tree, ripping leaves off branches and glancing at us with apparent indifference.

Six tourists stood in silence watching the gorillas as they grazed in trampled vegetation, surrounded by a cloud of flies. Then the Silverback, his huge face turned unblinkingly towards us, led his family into deeper bush.

There are just 630 mountain gorillas alive in the world. Half live in the Virunga Range, which straddles Uganda, Rwanda and former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo The rest live 100km south in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP), now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some primatologists believe these are a separate sub-species.

People pressure

Mountain gorillas live in one of the most densely populated and turbulent regions of Africa. The residents are more concerned with survival than in preserving biodiversity for future generations. Last year, Rwandan refugees living in DR Congo cut down seven football-field-size swathes of the Virunga forest a day in their search for firewood, pushing the gorillas up the slopes, where they suffered respiratory problems.

In Uganda, the effects of population pressure have been less spectacular. Until recently, peasants chipped away at Bwindi in their quest for land, while others poached - sometimes inadvertently trapping gorillas in their snares - or extracted timber and gold.

Park guards with silverback mountain gorilla© Mark Carwardine/Still PicturesGorilla tourism, as conceived in Uganda, is a compromise between government, the community and conservationists. The principle is simple: let tourists trek the gorillas and then use the money to make the country richer, the community better off and the conservationists happy.

When President Yoweri Museveni seized power in 1986, Uganda had been through 15 years of dictatorial rule. The economy was shattered. Tourism was pinpointed as a potential source of foreign exchange.

Low impact tourism

Gorilla tourism, which had been running in DR Congo and Rwanda since the 1970s was, in the words of Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) Executive Director, Dr Eric Edroma, "a potential gold mine." In practice, it could have been a conservationists nightmare. Instead, it has been a remarkable success. This is largely due to Uganda's tourism policy which is committed to attracting high-spending, low impact ecotourists.

This policy appears to have paid off. Gorilla treks average 80 per cent occupancy. Bwindi and Mgahinga - Uganda's section of the Virunga Range - together account for over a third of revenue produced by Uganda's National Parks.

Conservationists have little to complain about. Bwindi - with over 300 species of birds, eight types of primates and exotic sounding creatures like the Golden Cat - has been protected from environmentally damaging development. Buhoma, the park headquarters, is a well-maintained backwater, with a dirt road leading to the forest. Inside the park there are few signs of human presence and tourists struggle along overgrown paths made passable by machete wielding guides.

Trekkers are only allowed to stay with the gorillas for one hour and then they must stand well back. Children under 15 are forbidden to trek because of the risk of disease transmission.

Local say

The most innovative development, however, is community participation. When BINP was upgraded to a National Park in 1993, local people were suddenly denied access to the area. "Banning people from land-use causes resentment which needs to be addressed or they can cause problems in the park," explained Andy Brock-Doyle of IGCP which was called in by the Ugandan government in 1991 to habituate the Bwindi gorillas.

In Bwindi and Mgahinga, conservation has largely been translated into cash for local people. Fifty local jobs have been created in the park. A few entrepreneurs have also set up businesses: budget accommodation in Buhoma is a community project, profits from which fund other small businesses.

Profit sharing

The most direct payoff has come through UWA's policy of revenue sharing. Twelve per cent of park profits are given to community projects in the parishes around Bwindi. As one locally employed park guide put it: "I have a very good job. I'm earning money for myself and I'm helping people from the area benefit too."

Mgahinga and Bwindi are so far the only parks earning enough money for revenue sharing to become reality. So far 19 of the 22 parishes around Bwindi have been given US$ 52,000 towards projects, which include a dispensary, school buildings and a ribbon of red road linking two villages.

Twice as many parishes will benefit when money comes in from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Conservation Trust, launched in June to administer $4 million from the World Bank Global Environment Facility. Interest from the investment will go towards community projects, park management and research.

Gorilla tourism, however, is not problem free. The population do not share foreigners enchantment with gorillas, regarding them as crop-raiding vermin. Although Ugandans are given discounted permits, few take up the offer: last year just ten chose to trek. Conservation education has so far simply encouraged people to view nature in terms of monetary value. gorillaMountain gorilla© INCAFOAs the area around Bwindi is perceived as rich, it may have the adverse effect of pulling in unsustainable numbers of migrant workers. Worse, there may be hostility if the promised cash is not delivered. There are signs that this may already be happening. Revenue for 1996 has not been dispersed because UWA is short of cash following rebel activity in western Uganda which caused tourist numbers to drop country-wide.

The most damming criticism, however, comes from primatologists, some of whom think gorilla tourism endangers the creatures it is claiming to protect.

Research needed

Dr Tom Butinski, a senior conservation biologist specializing in African primates, believes that lack of research on the impact of tourism on gorillas means they are being put at an unjustifiable risk. "There has been almost no research in Bwindi. Gorillas are susceptible to new diseases. Yet thousands of people arrive in Uganda, and the next day they are next to the gorillas," he said.

Financial pressures may also wear down conservationists' good intentions. Following the break-up of one of Bwindi's two habituated groups, UWA decided to habituate two more. The same insidious process in Rwanda led to 70 per cent of the gorillas being habituated.

UWA are under pressure from tour operators and government to habituate even more gorillas. At the same time, some tourists complain that the gorillas are too docile. They don't want, as Dr Edroma puts it, "gorillas lining up for photographs."

Dr Butinski argues the gorillas would be best protected by funding conservation from donor money. He suggests that tourists who want to see gorillas, visit the large lowland populations in DR Congo - a proposal unlikely to be met with enthusiasm by Rwanda or Uganda.

UWA are sympathetic to these fears. They admit there has been inadequate research and planning to promote other tourism activities in Bwindi to reduce pressure on the gorillas. They are also considering Dr Butinski's proposal to reduce the risk of disease transmission by persuading tourists to wear face masks.

But UWA's sympathy can only stretch so far: their mandate is to protect all Uganda's wildlife and the gorillas are the only sector providing them with the revenue to fulfil that goal.

Visitors to Bwindi's densely forested hills should be forgiven if they fail to notice these rumbles of discontent. The region is lush and green. The cry of chimpanzees cuts through the early morning mist, and tourists return exhausted, but rhapsodic, from their encounter with the apes.

Even Dr Butinski concedes that if it has to be done, gorilla tourism in Bwindi is probably carried out as well as possible.

Anna Borzello is a freelance journalist based in Uganda.