Craig Stanford is Professor of Biological Sciences and Anthropology and Director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of Southern California. In Planet Without Apes, which we’ll publish next month, he details the very real threat of extinction facing the great apes, and urges us to consider the consequences of failing to reverse this course. In the post below, Stanford explains the complex role that ecotourism can play in protecting the great apes.
Recently, the latest of a decades-long series of incursions by rebel militias into the Virunga Volcanoes of eastern Africa–the last stronghold of the mountain gorilla–led to a bizarre scenario. The rebels invaded a large forest tract in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, driving out the park rangers and conservationists who toil to protect the gorillas and run a thriving ecotourism program. This sort of chaos has happened many times before. But this time the rebels proceeded to set up their own version of ecotourism, and began offering gorilla treks to unsuspecting (or uncaring) foreign tourists. They offered a discounted rate over the actual ecotourism program, charging $350 to hike out to a gorilla group and spend a thrilling hour sitting with the giant apes. The guerillas were now exploiting the gorillas.
Such bizarre ironies are not new to the mountain gorilla conservation effort, which has been beset with challenges over the past forty years that are often stranger than fiction. The gorillas’ range straddles the border of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The border is poorly marked but well-known to local people and park rangers, who know exactly where one can walk safely without fear of being attacked, blown up by a land mine, or murdered by rebels who live in relative safety on the other side. The gorillas, of course, know no such borders, and they cross and recross at will. Their wanderings through mountain meadows in search of the foliage and bamboo that make up their diet take them out of protected areas and into no-man’s land. This is an enormous challenge for ecotourism, as guides must navigate not only the apes’ world of steep mountain slopes and rainy weather to take their tour group to the animals; they must also navigate the human milieu of rebels and bandits who enter the forest in search of affluent and vulnerable western tourists.
Mountain gorillas were made famous by the late Dian Fossey, who pioneered the study of this largest of the world’s primates. Her zeal in protecting her study site at Karisoke, which sits on the Rwandan side of the border, eventually led her down a path of counter-productive tactics that included threatening the local populace who were threatening her gorillas. After her death in 1985 (at the hands of either an angry poacher or an ex-employee, depending on one’s theory of the murder), her former graduate students approached the government of Rwanda about a new strategy for protecting the gorillas that would rely more on carrots than sticks. A plan was developed to initiate visits to the gorilla groups by tourists, who would pay a hefty fee for such an intimate wildlife encounter. Most of the fee would go to the government, but a small portion of each tourist permit fee would build clinics and schools, improving the quality of life for villagers who otherwise relied on small-scale farming, and who illegally cut firewood and poached wildlife from the forest. The forest and its inhabitants were suddenly worth more alive than dead. Gorilla ecotourism was born.
Today, tourists can trek to gorilla groups in all three countries that straddle the border. The favored site varies from decade to decade depending on instability in the region, since infrastructure disappears and the place can become downright dangerous during times of political turmoil. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, only one gorilla was killed even as nearly a million people were brutally murdered. But parts of the forest at Karisoke were left scattered with land mines, and ecotourism understandably fell to a trickle for several years. Meanwhile, Uganda became a major player in the gorilla tourism business, with more and more of the gorilla groups in nearby Bwindi Impenetrable National Park habituated to tourists. Ecotourism was developing rapidly in Bwindi when, in early 1999, a rebel attack on the tourism camp at Buhoma was carried out by Rwandan rebels who launched their incursion from neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Western tourists were kidnapped and marched back toward the Congo border. Some were released; others were murdered. Ecotourism in Bwindi ended abruptly, only to resume when the Ugandan military established a major presence in the camp.
Gorilla ecotourism is and will always be fragile. Years of careful planning can be ruined by a single criminal act, or by the outbreak of another civil war. For local people, the disruption of tourism means a halt in essential income. But despite all the setbacks and challenges, it has been the savior for at least this one very endangered cousin of our species.