Tourism: A Necessary Evil For The Mountain Gorilla’s Salvation?

Being manhandled to the ground by a 350 pound silverback mountain gorilla was not a birthday gift I would wish on anyone. Yet whilst nonchalantly being tugged to the ground by his thigh-sized forearms, I realised there was no aggression in his actions – I had merely been in the way of his food source. He chomped on a particularly delectable piece of bark, looking at the collapsed pile of tourists he had indirectly caused to topple domino-like. Despite the brief disturbance, the rest of the 40-strong Susa group continued to eat, play and doze in the morning mist. As they exhibited such tolerance, curiosity and gentleness – remarkable anthropomorphic traits – one wonders why their dwindling numbers continue to be the victims of civil war and poaching.

The 160km² Volcanoes National Park is situated in the Rwandan portion of the Virunga mountain range that also straddles the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda. The park is dominated by a row of jagged-peaked volcanic cones ranging in height from 2200m – 4500m, the majority dormant. These steep and imposing mountains are linked by fertile saddles that were formed by solidified lava flows, and as such are now covered in lush, dense vegetation. It is here, primarily on the verdant slopes of Karisimbi, Mikeno and Visoke, that the majority of the troops live.  Being diurnal, they are most active between 6am and 6pm and spend most of their waking moments eating upwards of 50 pounds of vegetation a day in order to support their massive bulk. Living in stable, cohesive groups, they are non-territorial and the lone silverback determines group movement and mediates conflicts.

Technically the park is one portion of a trans-frontier conservation unit between Rwanda, DRC and Uganda. The Albert National Park was established by Belgian colonialists in 1925 as an attempt to cut down on the poaching of the recently discovered species. However, today the parks are ‘managed’ independently by Rwanda and the DRC with varying degrees of competence and success. By the early 1970’s, civil war, poaching, and European funded agricultural schemes that decimated the gorillas natural habitat caused the population to drop by an estimated 50%, leaving 250 gorillas in the wild, and placing the species on the Critically Endangered list. However, by the early 1990’s, due to efforts by Dian Fossey, Amy Vedder and Phil Webber, numbers rose again by around 30%.

Sadly, consecutive periods of unrest in the DRC and Rwanda interrupted this period of change. Civil war in 1991 in Rwanda, which ultimately led to the 1994 genocide, ensured that tourism and conservation efforts were hampered due to landmines and thousands of refugees fleeing via the Virunga mountains. As Rwanda stabilised after the genocide, it was the DRC’s turn to descend into anarchy. Between 1995 and 2005, when the Congolese section of the park was effectively closed, bureaucratic corruption and low incomes led to a marked rise in gorilla killings.

So much irony surrounds efforts made to save the mountain gorillas. Arguably it was a movie, Gorillas in the Mist, which globally alerted us of their plight. Whilst this meant a marked rise in awareness and an increase in potential conservation funds (permits alone generate $20,000 a day), this has triggered an increase in poaching. In one 1995 incident in DRC, 7 gorillas were killed. It is thought that the poachers were after one of the babies but had to kill the adults who were defending it. Poachers target the gorillas for bush meat, to sell to foreign zoos, or to tourists who desire macabre souvenirs such as hand-ashtrays. Again, ironic, as we have arguably habituated the gorillas to tourists and poachers alike in an attempt to raise funds to save them. Furthermore, this habituation with humans has exposed the gorillas to disease. Humans and gorillas are genetically similar enough that gorillas are vulnerable to many of the same diseases as humans. However, gorillas have not developed the immunities to resist human diseases, and infections could severely impact the population.

What then can be done to halt this vicious circle? Money is needed to drive conservation efforts and yet the means of doing so is further jeopardizing the gorillas themselves. In a perfect world, the optimum solution would be to have a limitless pool of money to pay teams of rangers to preserve the gorilla’s habitat, and to patrol the parks to keep them free from poachers and militias. However, despite large donations as recently as November 2009 by Disney, how realistic and sustainable is this ideal? One could argue that the habituation of tourists to gorillas is a necessary evil and that they cannot be conserved in a vacuum. The money generated annually from tourist permits can be pumped back into conservation efforts, it generates work in the region (and thus hopefully cutting down on the financial motivation for poaching), and ensures the species remains in the international spotlight.

Cynics may point out that it is a convenient means for a post-genocide Rwanda to recover economically – and they would probably be partially correct in their assessment. However, surely one can accept such a symbiotic relationship between the economy and tourism if it means the survival of the mountain gorilla? One can look to DRC as a perfect ‘foil’ to Rwanda. DRC is a country that still has no real conservation infrastructure intact and where, as recently as 2007-8, has seen scores of gorillas killed by poachers and militias like Nkunda’s. Admittedly, there has been a 12.5% increase in the gorilla population there recently, as well as the announcement in 2008 of a 10 year project backed by all 3 countries and partially funded by the Netherlands. However, the gorilla’s position remains extremely precarious in a region that has been continually ravaged by conflict, poverty and over-farming. In such a climate, tourism may be the only remedy.