Rwanda gorilla report raises tourism questions


(eTN) A report released by the American Journal for Primatology, coinciding with the Rwandan Kwita Izina celebrations and conservation conference in Kigali last week, was met with a degree of doubt and scepticism by both park management, as well as the tourism trade. Some of the recommendations in particular caught the eye of experts, such as expansion of the safe distance from presently about 7 meters to a staggering 18 meters, and for tourist visitors to be compelled to wear face masks to prevent transmission of communicable diseases to the gentle giants.

Having tracked gorillas many times, this correspondent can tell from experience that seeing the animals from that distance would be ultimately more difficult – it would be challenging to take good pictures and the entire fabric of gorilla tracking could change, unless solutions are discussed and permanent measures agreed between conservationists, park authorities, and the tourism industry. It is, however, known that all three park management authorities spend considerable resources for monitoring the habituated groups open for visits by tourists, collecting added data from groups set aside for research, and from encounters by their wardens, rangers, and trackers with groups not habituated at all. These data are shared and undergoing constant review to ensure that this precious resource can be sustained for good.

Mountain gorillas are found in their natural habitat in Rwanda, the Congo DR, and Uganda across the Virunga mountain range, and an estimated 800 or so of the animals live under close supervision and around-the-clock protection by rangers and trackers.

Sections of the report also suggested that regular visits in close range by as many as 8 tourists – the limit imposed on group size in all three countries – was impacting on the social behavior of the mountain gorillas, giving the national park managers in Rwanda, Congo DR, and Uganda fodder for thought when studying and discussing the findings of the study, comparing it with their own research results and observations and finding a way forward.

Gorilla tracking is key to the tourism sectors in Rwanda and Uganda, while relatively few visitors are making their way across the borders into the Congo, which still suffers from the long fallout of civil war and insurgencies in precisely the area where the gorillas are found. Subsequent security concerns have kept larger numbers of visitors away from the Congolese park, and it is, therefore, often overland truck tours and back packers who do their tracking there when available permits in Uganda and Rwanda are sold out during the peak season. The most common crossing point for this activity is the border to the Congo near Kisoro, itself a spring board to the two nearby gorilla parks on Uganda soil.

Uganda records the largest number of mountain gorillas in the two national parks of Bwindi and Mgahinga, with Rwanda a close second in terms of numbers found in the Parc de Volcanoes, while surveillance and counts in Congo DR have of late been stepped up to ascertain the exact number of the gorilla groups and their respective family members found there.

On the occasion of World Environment Day, it was also once again stressed that the cooperation between the wildlife management organizations in the three countries sharing the Virunga range is on course and that a draft treaty has been worked out in a series of meetings – the latest in Kigali just a short while ago, which is being presented to the respective national governments for the process of ratification. The gorilla project secretariat is located in Kigali from where conservation, monitoring, and research efforts are being coordinated, and notably, the secretariat is headed by Dr. Arthur Mugisha, who is a former executive director of the Uganda Wildlife Authority and then regional director for Flora and Fauna International, before moving to Rwanda.