Journalist, editor and producer covering society, business, architecture, tourism, rural regeneration, conservation. I work/have worked for The Guardian, Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Business Insider, Reader's Digest, Icon Films and the BBC. I also provide consultancy services to international brands.
Few tourists would see the misty mountains of the Virunga Conservation Area, the dense forest, hanging vines, orchids, giant lobelias, volcanic peaks (two active, six extinct) and crater lakes and flashy bird life, if it wasn’t for the mountain gorillas that also peacefully inhabit them. In fact, if it wasn’t for primates considerably less people would visit Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the three countries whose boundaries meet in this protected area, at all.
Almost half of the 700 mountain gorillas remaining in the wild live in Bwindi, Uganda. The rest are spread across the three national parks – Uganda’s Mgahinga, Rwanda’s Parc Nationale des Vulcans and Parc Nationale des Virunga in the DRC – that the conservation area unites. Gorillas are by far the most popular tourist attraction in each country; the revenue from gorilla and chimpanzee tourism combined is equal to over half of the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s total income. The tourism industry depends on endangered gorillas, and the survival of gorillas is – for better or worse -dependent on tourism.
Charging high fees (from July permits for tracking gorillas in Uganda will be US$500 per person) and keeping visitor numbers low means maximum revenue for minimum impact. Tourism funds research, conservation and ranger training, and local community projects, indirectly benefiting all apes by proving to the people living on the forest fringe, that protecting wildlife can be more lucrative in the long term than poaching it. But this win-win approach can only work on a small scale. With demand for primate tours, the challenge now is to develop and promote other activities and encourage visitors to explore different areas so the benefits can be spread more widely.
So in Uganda there are now half a dozen well-publicised chimp tracking destinations, the most famous being Kibale Forest where some 300 of the 1400 star attractions have been habituated for easy viewing. Enterprising local women sell food to post-visit trekkers, the Bigodi wetlands bird sanctuary along the road – a community project in a papyrus swamp – benefits from passers-by, and the less visible primates, black and white colobus, grey-cheeked mangabey, vervets and L’Hoest among them, benefit from having their habitat preserved by the tourist shilling. The chimpanzees at the centre of this economy, study our group with detached interest, dreamily wedged in the crooks of fig tree branches, infants clasped to furry chests. A few toss sticks. They are protected by ex-poachers.
Julia Lloyd, who manages the habituation project says “Kyamukama Silver, my assistant, is an ex-poacher. He’s 50, knows the forest like the back of his hand and can track the chimpanzees with skill I’m in awe of. He has 11 kids, so making a sustainable living from the park is very important to him.”
Lloyd is leading trips offered by UK tour operator Discovery Initiatives from which direct contributions are made to on the ground primate conservation projects. “I’d say in Uganda primate tourism and primate conservation do go hand in hand. But we need to continue strict control in order to ensure the primate population stays viable. UWA restrict the length of viewing time, and the distance between observers and apes in order to reduce the risk of behavioural disturbance and disease transmission, and all observers (tourists, ranger guides, trackers and researchers) need to show the apes respect by strongly adhering to the rules.”
Discovery Initiatives, like Rainbow Tours (also UK-based) and several operators based in Kampala including The Far Horizons, are also helping to reduce the pressure on Bwindi and Kibale by promoting multi-destination tours into the Virungas and across the border to the Parc National des Volcans where the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International closely monitors the activities of both primates and humans. The park where Fossey and several of the gorillas she fought to protect met untimely deaths caught the world’s attention with Gorillas in the Mist, the film based on her life and shot here on location. Rosette Rugamba, director general of Rwanda’s government tourism office (ORTPN) is keen to build on that interest, and offer a wider range of activities across the country in order to spread the benefits to as many people as possible. As in Uganda, more primate species are being habituated and more tracking tours developed. Golden monkeys are in the spotlight but with just six visitors a day able to visit the group on the flanks of the Sabinyo volcano while that’s high-end sustainable ecotourism, accommodating the 70,000 annual visitors Rwanda hopes to attract by the end of the decade means redirecting tourists to Nyungwe Forest National Park in the southeast. As the largest montane forest in Central Africa with a healthy population of Angola colobus monkeys (possibly the largest troop of arboreal primates on the continent) Nyungwe has the capacity to absorb plenty of visitors before suffering from over-use. What’s more, it’s sufficiently beautiful to convince anyone who actually wanders into it that there is far more to Rwanda than apes.
The Congo doesn’t have the infrastructure but sharing not only borders but wild mountains and primates with Uganda and Rwanda it’s vying for a place on multi-destination tours and a share of the primate tourism profit. Its hopes hinge on three habituated groups of mountain gorillas, habituated lowland gorillas in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, and bonobos.With the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), community-based NGOs are working hard to protect and extend reserves – a group of eight (The Union of Associations for Gorilla Conservation and Community Development) is hoping to create a corridor of community-managed reserves, from Kahuzi-Biega to Maiko National Park – but it’s a battle. “If sufficient numbers of animal survive the rampant poaching that is currently taking place in the PNV the potential is high” says Patrick Shah of The Far Horizons. “We would love to offer Virunga-wide tours, but it looks like it will get a lot worse before it gets better in terms of security.”
Given that the reduction of poverty and the survival of species now depend on getting ecotourism up and running and just right, the Virungas are well-patrolled and well-advised by a multitude of top tier international agencies including UNEP, UNESCO, Royal Institute of Natural Sciences in Belgium (IRSNB), Conservation International, the Fossey Fund, the and the Great Ape Survival Project (GRASP) – Belgium was one of the signatories to ratify the recent Kinshasa Declaration on Great Apes.But it’s hard to keep primate tourism and conservation on an even keel.
Tourism itself has an impact. The development around Kibale Forest on the back of chimp trekking is enough to accommodate treble the number of daily visitors currently allowed. “The pressure for primate tracking is such” says Patrick Shah, “that even if primate tourism is developed in neighbouring countries, there will still be pressure on UWA to increase the number of permits.”
And then there’s the uneasy relationship between primates and the fast-growing populations sharing territory on the fringes of forests and reserves. There’s the problem of deforestation and – in some areas – bushmeat. But there are reports of chimpanzees attacking and killing babies, and the ongoing problem of crop-raiding, particularly by baboons which are increasingly fearless and have also been killing chickens, occasionally small goats – all of which do little to encourage the local communities to get behind the conservation efforts.
While habituated primates would eventually revert back to being unhabituated in time says Lloyd, “the apes need sustained protection. Gorillas would be easy targets to poachers when habituated so the continued monitoring of them is paramount for their protection.” The gorillas have become so accustomed to humans in areas of the Virungas that great stretches of perimeter fencing has gone up to stop them straying into people’s gardens. Should there be civil unrest, natural disaster or a withdrawal of funds that prevents the rangers that protect them from doing their job, they would be more at risk than before the strategy was adopted.
But, as Julia Lloyd points out, without money generated from tourism the chances of the habitat and wildlife being protected is next to none.
The Rwanda Tourism Board /Office Rwandaise du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN), Boulevard de la Révolution n° 1, Kigali
Tel (250) 576514 or 573396; http://www.rwandatourism.com
SORREL DOWNER / BSPIRIT 2007
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