Gorilla Trekking - During and Post COVID-19
In 2018 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed the status of Mountain gorillas from “critically endangered” to “endangered.” This was a huge success story for conservation as in the 1980s there were only around 240 mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains alone. When the ICUN changed the status there were 1,004 mountain gorillas based on the 2015–2016 surveys of the Virunga Massif and the 2011 survey of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.
Today there are 1,063 mountain gorillas, further great news, especially as Dian Fossey famously warned that "these animals, one of humankind’s closest relatives, might appear only in the pages of books by the year 2000 if there wasn’t an effort to save them."
So the question is what does the future hold for Mountain Gorillas and how can tourism continue to be a key part of the conservation tool kit that contributes to the survival of this species. Anna Behm Masozera, Director of the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP), has said " mountain gorillas still face many threats and as a subspecies will always need to be carefully protected and their habitat and tourism well managed. We cannot be complacent, but we can take a moment to acknowledge the efforts and results of the latest census and recognise how far we have come.”
The main threats to Mountain Gorillas are poaching, habitat degradation and loss and diseases, like Ebola and COVID-19. Some of the areas within the Virunga Mountains where Mountain Gorillas live have also been exposed to conflict which have made conservation and monitoring efforts more difficult. So what can we do?
1 - Awareness - Ensure that people know what is happening in the Mountain Gorilla Conservation arena and that tourists who want to go on Gorilla Trekking Safaris have the correct and appropriate information about how to safely participate in the activity.
Awareness is a key tool because it acts as a catalyst for getting support which is crucial as the conservation effort can not be done alone.
There are so many stakeholders, for example, National and Local Governments, Wildlife Authorities, Community Organisations, Research and Scientific Groups, Tour Operators and Destination Management Companies all who have a part to play and are currently working together for the benefit of Mountain Gorilla Conservation. It is important that Tour Operators and Destination Management Companies do their part in ensuring that all the Gorilla Trekking Safaris that are run are done with the conservation of the Mountain Gorillas in mind. Sensitising tourists about the need to strictly adhere to rules around Gorilla Trekking as well as understanding the wider socio - economic issues surrounding Gorilla Trekking is important. Below are some key points that everyone involved in Gorilla Trekking should be aware of.
2 - Communities & Habitat - The entire Global Mountain Gorilla population live in an 8,390km2 area, in comparison, the Serengeti is around 14,000km2, Etosha National Park is around 22,000km2 and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is around 8,200km2. This means that the protection of the Mountain Gorillas natural habitat and understanding how communities interact with the forests in these areas is very important.
In Uganda before Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga National Park were gazetted as National Parks the Batwa Tribe co- existed in both forests along side not only the Mountain Gorillas but other mammals, birds and plants. The Batwa were evicted from the National Parks and have had to try and change their whole way of life to survive outside of the forest. There are also many other communities that live in and around both National Parks who depend on the park for resources, so with park access being restricted these communities struggle to adapt. It is important that the appropriate authorities create the right infrastructure to assist communities who have been adversely affected by the creation of the National Parks as well us introducing sustainable ways of substituting resources that were traditionally obtained from the forest and coming up with new ways to co-exist.
Tourists who come to Uganda can also support credible Communities Enterprises when the visit the National Parks. These enterprises do amazing grass roots work in assisting in the eduction, public health and employment of communities where there are limited opportunities.
The Mountain Gorilla Conservation story is testament to what can be done when through working together and moving the same direction. We now have to look forward to the next 40years and begin to shape what the next phase of conservation looks like, building on what has gone well so far and learning form what we didn't quite get right.