Nairobi — A stark choice faces Uganda and Rwanda over the future of ecotourist trips to visit the rare mountain gorillas, following a new report which warns that close encounters with humans are having an alarming effect on their behaviour.
The study in the American Journal of Primatology notes that tourists who come closer than 18 metres to the gorillas not only potentially threaten their health but also affect how the primates feed and interact with each other.
The mountain gorilla is on the verge of extinction, with less than 700 of these species found in the wild. Their very last redoubt is in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park of southwest Uganda, and in the mists of the Virunga Mountains of the Great Lakes.
The Virunga sanctuaries are Mgahinga Gorilla (Uganda), Volcano (Rwanda) and Virunga (Congo) National Parks. Here, the mountain gorilla already faces the threats of habitat loss, pressures of men at war, poaching for the bushmeat trade and the emergence of new terrifying diseases like Ebola.
Now ecotourism trips to the sanctuaries have been added to the list.
The problem however is twofold. First, gorilla tourism brings in huge amounts of money. Uganda alone benefits to the tune of $496,667.94 a month from the sale of permit fees, aside from the money spent by tourists on hotels, lodges, travel and souvenirs.
On the other hand, foreign visitors have encouraged regional governments to invest in conservation. Their presence coupled with that of researchers has also acted as a strong deterrent to poachers.
One researcher, Michelle Klailova of Stirling University in the UK readily acknowledged that insisting that tourists stayed much farther away from the gorillas would make them less popular.
Even viewing the gorillas from more than 10 metres in Bwindi for example, would be almost impossible.
But the report says that the long-term consequence of the gorillas becoming over stressed could make them more aggressive and affect family groups wellbeing.
One recommendation is that tourists be forced to wear face masks near the gorillas in order to block any transmission of human diseases.
But critics warn such a proposal would be unpopular.”The prospect of wearing masks all the time while only being allowed distant glimpses of animals could have a detrimental impact on gorilla-watching holidays,” wrote Robin McKie, the Observer’s science editor.
Uganda boasts half the entire mountain gorilla population and is the most popular destination for gorilla tourism. The country’s two centres of mountain gorilla conservation — Mgahinga and Bwindi were gazetted as gorilla sanctuaries by the Uganda government in 1991.