In 1981, there were only about 254 mountain gorillas left in the world. At one point, researchers believed the species would be extinct by the year 2000. Despite decades of civil war, hunting, disease, and habitat destruction, this prediction has turned out to be wrong. According to a census conducted in 2018, there are over 1004 mountain gorillas alive today.
Mountain gorillas are the only wild ape population whose numbers are known to be increasing. Other non-human apes such as orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos are not faring so well. What has caused the rise in numbers of mountain gorillas? What shifts in perspectives did it take to get here?
What approaches were taken to achieve this success? What’s the future of mountain gorilla conservation?
To find out the answers to these questions, let’s take a “digital hike” through the thick cloud forests of Bwindi National Park in Uganda.
The Adventure – Mountain Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
Coming face to face with one of our closest relatives is a unique wildlife experience. Africa is famous for driving safaris but gorilla trekking is an entirely different encounter. There is no steel barrier between you and these wild animals, and the only way to get up close is on foot.
Early in the morning, hikers, wildlife lovers, and photographers from all over the world drive on the winding roads up to one of Bwindi’s base stations. Before setting out, a ranger briefs the group about how the day will go and the trekking itinerary.
The rules are clear: Don’t trek if you are sick. Stay at least 20 feet away from the gorillas. Oh yeah, if one charges the group, do not run. Rangers reassure you that gorillas are not aggressive animals, however, if they feel threatened, they will display their strength then back down.
In the local language, Bwindi means impenetrable. If you journey to this part of the world, you will learn the true meaning of this word. The terrain is challenging to move through. The vegetation is dense tangles of bushes and trees that spread over a seemingly endless horizon of steep ridges.
The mountain range is at an elevation of around 8,000 to 13,000 feet. For some perspective, that’s about the same altitude a skydiver jumps out of a plane. Slopes are steeper than a staircase. Don’t bother looking for trails or signs because there are none. This is not a zoo. To reach the gorillas, hikers need to walk hours uphill and downhill through the thick tangles of vines, thorns, and roots. Rangers must bushwhack through with a machete.
Trackers set off before the tourists to find the gorillas, then radio the group leader with the coordinates. Usually, the group goes to the silverback (alpha male) first to announce their presence.
Each encounter is different, but there are many similarities between the family groups. Gorillas are social animals who spend most of their lives living with others. There’s only one dominant male in the group. The others are females and babies.
A full-grown silverback can weigh over 400 pounds and reach a height of six feet tall. Male gorillas become silverbacks around the age of thirteen when the hair across their shoulders and down their back becomes a silvery blend of gray and white.
For many, seeing a silverback is the highlight of the experience. Perhaps this is because you come face to face with this powerful creature who could crush you but doesn’t. Instead, the silverback tolerates your presence and even lets you get a glimpse of the daily life of his family.
Gorillas aren’t sedentary, which makes keeping up with them a real challenge. The group is continuously on the move, searching for food. Like humans, they enjoy variety in their diet. They eat a mix of roots, shoots, fruits, tree bark, wild celery, and leaves.
Most groups have some young gorillas which are fun to watch. They spend their days just like young humans, they play, chase each other, do somersaults, and climb trees.
Visitors can only stay for one hour with the gorillas. For many, the moment the ranger tells you the hour is up is the low point of the experience. Nevertheless, the rules are there for a reason; it’s time to make the long trek back to the base camp and leave the gorillas in their forest sanctuary.
Once back at the base station, the rangers make it a point to express their gratitude for your visit and tell you to send your family and friends to Uganda. They know that the future of the national park and the fate of the gorillas relies on people coming to visit.
Those who live around Bwindi National Park are among the poorest people in Uganda. Roughly 90 percent of the population relies on subsistence agriculture, which is one of the few ways to earn an income in this part of the world. In the past, some people resorted to poaching as a way to make money to survive.
Just a few years ago, local people saw gorillas as pests and bad omens. A gorilla hand hanging in your living room made you a hero. Unlike other animals that live in the forests, gorillas had no value. They don’t produce milk, and you can’t eat their meat.
The relationship between gorillas and humans started to change when in 1993 Bwindi National Park opened its doors to tourists. People from all around the world began to come to Uganda. These tourists would spend thousands of dollars on tours to see the gorillas.
The park directly employs rangers, census takers, security guards, and porters. Bwindi is in a remote region of Uganda, so all trekkers stay at least one night in a lodge. The lodges hire local people to work as waiters, cleaners, cooks, drivers, managers, and maintenance staff. Some people also earn a living by selling wooden carvings and jewelry to visitors.
Unlike funds received from government and charity handouts, money earned through steady work, allows people to spend their income however they wish. Before, local people would hope for a good harvest so they could survive. Now with the money they earn from working in gorilla tourism, they can afford to pay for food, clothing, education, technology, medicine, and doctor visits.
For some people, they are the first ones in their family to have a steady earned income. These are the people who for the first time in generations, can fulfill the dream of many parents, to give their children a better life than the one they have had. Giving people the means to support themselves and their families help to create a sustainable future for humanity and wildlife alike.
This powerful shift in perspective made local people stop cutting back the forest to make room for farms and houses. It also made poaching gorillas looked down on as it hurts the livelihood of the whole community.
Not only do local people benefit from the jobs created by gorilla tourism but also from a revenue sharing program that was organized by the Ugandan government. Gorilla tracking is the main reason why people visit Uganda. Every person who wants to encounter the gorillas must buy a permit that costs $600. The money generated from these permits goes into the revenue sharing program, which helps local communities to improve their quality of life. In Uganda, local people receive 20% of the total revenue earned from the permits.
Aside from this revenue sharing program, funds are continually reinvested into community projects to improve roads, build schools and wells. The funds from the permits helped to transform a local health clinic into a full hospital. This hospital now serves both tourists and Ugandans. Local women can now give birth in the hospital, which significantly reduces mortality rates. This is just one of many ways money from gorilla trekking has helped the people who live around Bwindi National Park.
The Land & Wildlife
Bwindi National Park is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world. You can find hundreds of species of mammals, birds, butterflies, and reptiles here. When it comes to plants, the park is the most diverse forests in East Africa, with more than 1,000 flowering plant species, including 163 species of trees.
With the funds collected from the permits, The Uganda Wildlife Authority has created a sanctuary for the endangered gorillas. Every morning, a group of trackers hikes into the forest to check on the gorillas. The trackers keep logs of their movements, feeding, and health status. Tourism police and armed rangers patrol the area around the national park to protect the gorillas against poachers. Rangers also work to find and destroy snares that are set by local people. These snares are designed to catch antelope but are harmful to gorillas as well.
Some of the best rangers have proven to be ex-poachers. Their knowledge of both the forest and gorilla behavior is useful in their new line of work. This transformation from poacher to park ranger is an excellent example of how creating jobs through adventure tourism helps to conserve the environment.
Every few years, a census is conducted to count the gorilla population in both Bwindi and Virunga. These repeated counts provide essential insights into population trends and reaffirm the intensive protection efforts are working. Census work also provides jobs for locals and allows them to be more connected to the effort to protect the mountain gorillas.
Vision for the Future
Renowned researcher Dian Fossey envisioned that gorilla tourism would be the only way to help save these animals. She may have been right. With Gorilla tourism generating millions of dollars in revenue each year, the increase in both economic growth and conservation.
It’s estimated that one mountain gorilla can indirectly generate $3.1 million dollars over its lifetime from tourist income. The revenue generated from tourism is an essential factor because it directly demonstrates to local communities and governments that the gorillas are worth more alive than dead.
Despite the recent increase in population, mountain gorillas are still critically endangered and face threats due to their limited habitat, human encroachment, snares set for other animals, and potential diseases. With only about 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the world, they remain one of the world’s most endangered animals. There is still much work needed if we want to share our planet with mountain gorillas.
Gorillas play an important role in their environment. Without these animals eating lots of vegetation, the natural balance in the food chain would be disrupted. This could negatively affect other wildlife in the area. The imbalance would ultimately impact the people who depend on the forest for food, water and other resources.
In Bwindi National Park, fourteen gorilla families are habituated (are used to being around humans). There are others that the rangers are aware of but do not disturb. These animals are left alone to act as control groups for the ongoing research on the impact of gorilla tourism.
Since gorillas share 98% of their DNA with humans, they are at risk of catching human diseases of which they have low immunity. To help stop the spread of disease from humans to gorillas, only healthy people can go trekking, and you can not get too close to them. Most researchers agree that when done responsibly, the benefits of habituation and gorilla tourism outweigh the risks.
Every adventure junkie who goes to see these animals contributes to gorilla conservation. By spending money on this experience, people help fund the management of the reserves, monitor the gorillas, and pay the salaries of the rangers who patrol the forests to protect against poachers. A journey into the forest to see mountain gorillas is one way to ensure that future generations will be able to have this same incredible experience.