There is an increasing interest among travelers on African safari to visit mountain gorillas which live only in the mountainous tropical forests of Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. There are positive and negative effects on mountain gorillas and their habitat associated with gorilla tourism since its commencement in the 1970’s.
Mountain gorillas are endangered species by the actions of humans, from encroachment which leads to loss of habitats to civil conflicts, poaching and infectious diseases. Due to these threats, gorilla numbers dwindled to less than 500 in the 1980’s which prompted the IUCN to list the mountain gorilla in the red data book as critically endangered.
Gorilla research pioneered by renowned American primatologist Dian Fossey, who established Karisoke research center in Rwanda Volcanoes National Park in 1967 and later on the introduction of gorilla tracking safaris in Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo played an important role reducing the threats and paving way for mountain gorilla population to increase. The survival of gorillas today is without doubt linked to gorilla tourism development.
Gorilla research strengthened the need to conserve and protect gorillas on a local and international level. For instance the international gorilla conservation program was formed in 1991 by the joint partnership of African wildlife foundation (AWF,) flora and fauna international and the world wildlife fund (WWF). Having been inspired by the works of Dian Fossey, IGCP measures to regulate tourism such as the gorilla tracking rules and regulations, ranger based monitoring system, habituation of more gorilla families to boost gorilla tourism and community conservation.
By introducing gorilla trekking safaris, tourists can purchase gorilla permits and track mountain gorillas on foot in their natural habitat on tours to Uganda or Rwanda. Sale of gorilla permits generates huge sums of revenue which is used to fund local community development and conservation activities for the protection of gorillas and their natural habitat.
For example, training and equipping park rangers has restored security and reduced poaching of gorillas in eastern democratic republic of Congo- Virunga national park where gorilla population was largely affected by civil wars and poaching. Rangers use ranger based monitoring system to conduct patrols daily which helps to provide maximum security and hence keeping gorillas and their natural habitat safe from illegal these illegal activities.
The revenue from gorilla trekking fees is used to fund alternative livelihood projects which are the most effective ways to boost development of local communities making them less dependent on forest for living. Revenue sharing scheme is an initiative for achieving local community development and conservation of gorillas. Through this scheme 20% of the gorilla permit sales are geared towards development of alternative livelihood projects for local people who live adjacent to the gorilla parks such as Bwindi and volcanoes national park. Projects such as building schools, hospitals, support of commercial and sustainable farming including bee keeping, goat and pig rearing act as alternative resources for local people to depend on natural resources instead.
Community tourism such as development cultural tourism trails and tours enables local people to earn income directly from gorilla tourism and hence are able to improve their livelihoods. Tourists on gorilla safaris can undertake cultural tours to gain a cultural experience while supporting the local tourism through buying crafts, food, and staying in locally owned accommodation including homestays.
Local people are able to support conservation because they earn income through tourism which has changed their perception of conservation and tourism. Through the community tourism projects as well as the park, accommodations and community based organizations provide employment opportunities for locals such as guides and rangers.
The benefits locals get as a result of tourism has discouraged them from indulging in damaging activities such as poaching and encroachment. The gorilla habitats have stayed well protected enabling gorilla to reproduce and hence increase in numbers.
By 2008, gorilla numbers stood at 880 and today there are over, 1000 mountain gorillas according to the gorilla census conducted at the end of 2018. The status of the mountain gorillas has been changed from critically endangered to endangered species by the IUCN.
The increasing number of gorillas has also increased the gorilla safaris in the gorilla national parks in Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic republic of Congo.
Unfortunately habitat loss, civil wars, poaching and infectious human diseases are still major threats to the survival of mountain gorillas but not on the level as it used to be in the past.
Gorilla tourism has helped conservation of gorillas in the gorilla national parks which include Bwindi impenetrable forest national park and Mgahinga gorilla national park in Uganda, Volcanoes national park in Rwanda and Virunga national park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.