African safaris are only complete when one mentions about mountain gorilla tracking. When it comes to magical encounters in the wild, spending an hour with gorillas is such a breathtaking and emotional experience that comes once in a life time. Wildlife encounters are usually not good for conservation purposes. Where as programs where wildlife are protected and bred in captivity are the prime ones under scrutiny, it is also necessary for us to ask ourselves if tourism activities with free roaming biodiversity are ethically sound. This draws us to one of the most critical questions that; “is gorilla tracking good or bad for the conservation of these largest primates?”
Pointing out the effect of gorilla tracking on the conservation of these species is very essential given the fact that they are critically endangered. There are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas that are left in the whole world. Considering that African mountain gorillas don’t have many natural predators and that humans are the main force causing their extinction, its crucial for us to raise questions like will gorilla tracking further threaten the thriving of these endangered Apes/will it help them from extinction? Is tourism in Democratic Republic of Congo helping in gorilla protection? The major threats to these species that are still remaining on the earth include; habitat loss, poaching, spread of human infectious diseases, civil was and political unrest, illegal hunting for bush meat and trophies, human wildlife conflict and mining/oil exploration.
Primarily, spread of infectious diseases has become the most dangerous factor for gorilla conservation. Exposing then to human presence means they can easily be endangered by escalating chances of disease spread from humans to these great primates.
Gorillas share about 98% of their DNA with humans and this means they are very susceptible to human diseases especially diarrhea, scabies and tuberculosis. Unfortunately, these incredible species do not have a strong immune system as humans to help resist the diseases. In response to threat of many people getting into contact with wild mountain gorillas, Virunga National Park like any other gorilla destination have the set rules and regulations that trekkers are always briefed on before setting into the forest to search for these species in their natural habitat.
Other measures include a must to have a gorilla permit to be allowed to track gorillas and this should be obtained in advance in DRC. They are also limited to 8 persons per day and all these are aimed at limiting the population of visitors that visit the gorilla group per day. These rules apply to almost all the 4 protected areas within the 3 destinations where these endangered apes live. Gorilla tracking in the Virunga National Park states that safeguard the health of Virunga’s gorillas, tourists will be required to put on surgical masks which will be offered when encountering the apes. There is only 1 hour for visitors to have a face to face interaction with gorillas. If you are not feeling well/have fever, diarrhea/persistent sore throat, you are advised not to go for gorilla trekking in any of these parks.
For the tour operators and accommodation facilitate which help visitors book their safaris, obtain their trekking permits and travel to and from the park, also usually up date/remind the tourists about trekking etiquettes. Another critical regulation for visitors is also to keep a distance of about 7 to 8 at all times to help reduce contacts and spread of diseases to these creatures. In case these animals come close to you are required to stand still and not to move so as to avoid irritating them.
Groups are limited to only 1 hour encounter with these creatures and only 8 persons are permitted to track one group per day. In case you sneeze/cough you are advised to cover the mouth and turn away from gorillas.
Other measures include the veterinary and health care by Gorilla Doctors, a non profit organization that offers life saving medical care not only DRC but also to Uganda and Rwanda.
For the rest of other threats especially habitat loss, poaching, hunting and human wildlife conflict; gorilla tourism sector has largely had a positive impact on the adjacent communities to the parks through uplifting them in poverty stricken areas, tourism revenue sharing, employment and other economic benefits that bring positive impacts on gorilla conservation.
Human wildlife conflict is minimized when people understand the gorilla better and have a vested interest in their survival. Currently, they are sighted as the most income generating resources that are valuable as long term attractions. The increase in local investments both economic and social offer an impetus to conserve these wild creatures such that the rewards keep on in terms of education, health care and economic stimulation. Some of the former poachers are now helping in searching wire snares, find source of food, hunting trophies and in a long run gorillas will be conserved due to tourism and other similar social and research projects. Some of these poachers have also been employed as park rangers and now play part in protecting the apes.
In conclusion, whereas gorilla tracking does increase the risk of exposing the gorillas to human infectious, the tourism sector doesn’t undermine their conservation as a whole. Part of the benefits from tourism is given back to the community to address the community needs. This helps to encourage the communities around the park to participate in conservation of these apes.
For each traveler who purchases gorilla permit, contribute to conservation of not only the gorillas but also other wildlife. The revenue that is generated helps the park management in funding the management of the protected area, monitoring the gorillas and support patrolling operations by rangers.
Each tourist that spends a night in local lodges, hires a local tour operator, engages in local activities and eats in local restaurants helps to improve the livelihoods of community residents living in and around the park. If you are planning for gorilla safari to Virunga National Park make sure that you wear the surgical masks while with gorillas.