Man’s closest relatives live deep in the jungle of Central Africa. With only some 800 mountain gorillas left, this species is extremely vulnerable. It caught the eye of tourist and conservation groups, and for the past years, mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda has been a highly sought after travel experience. But there are very few mountain gorillas and they live in hard to find corners of the jungle. With the increase in demand for gorilla trekking, the governments of these Central African countries imposed a permit system. Currently, the cost of a permit allowing one hour of mountain gorilla observation, ranges between USD500 and USD750 per person (depending on season and country). The fee is said to increase to as much as USD1,000 per person next year. But what is the intention behind these extremely expensive permits? And does travelers have any guarantee what the money is being used for?
No gorillas, no tourism
Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC are not exactly the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Without the mountain gorilla populations living here, the average tourist would hardly have taken a second look especially in the regions plagued by civil unrest. Africa’s mountain gorillas live in two population groups: the Biwindi Forest population (Uganda) and the Virunga volcanic mountain population, covering national parks within Rwanda, DRC and Uganda. The mountain gorillas rely on the African jungle for their survival – if taken away from the jungle they are unlikely to survive and prosper. Adult mountain gorillas are huge: males can reach an average height of 1.9 meters (6 ft 3 in) with an arm span of 2.3 meters (7 ft 7 in). With such huge creatures walking around, it is no wonder that the local communities have reverted to hunting the mountain gorillas to keep a safe distance between man and beast. Yet the mountain gorilla is not a threat to humans, but land use interfered as communities encroached deeper into the jungle and gorillas were left with limited space to roam. In this sense, gorilla trekking provided a valuable reason to protect the mountain gorillas.
Where does the money go?
With the high fees involved in catching a quick interaction with mountain gorillas, it is inevitable that people would want to know where their money is going. It is estimated that about half of Africa’s mountain gorilla populations are found in national parks – this is the only gorillas that are formally protected. Mountain gorillas outside of the parks have little or no protection and are often in conflict with local communities. The fees paid for gorilla permits are used for the management of these national parks. This means some funding for anti-poaching management, and the employment of the rangers and guides. In countries where conservation funds are extremely limited and even lacking at times, one can imagine just how valuable the gorilla permit fees are. But note that there is a limitation to the number of visitors that are allowed to interact with the gorillas on a daily basis – between 80 and 100 permits are issued daily, depending on season and country. However, there is a definite cap on the number of tourists that are able to see the gorillas in their natural environment. With increasing costs of conservation, personnel and management and the lack of any other major income source, it is understandable that the permit fees continue to climb. Still, there is no doubt that tourists have been paying the way for mountain gorilla conservation, and hopefully this positive conservation situation will continue in the future.
Gorilla trekking is gaining huge popularity and rightly so. Getting so close to man’s closest relative as an experience that is not easily forgotten. The overall accommodating and even friendly nature of the mountain gorillas gives tourists all the more reason to trek through the overgrown forests to see these creatures in their natural habitat. But, as the popularity of gorilla trekking is spreading around the world (and some even rate this as the best ever travel experience), there are warning signs that should not be ignored. Scientists are increasingly concerned about the possibility of mountain gorillas suffering from common human illnesses. Being genetically so close to humans, mountain gorillas can easily catch common infections from the people visiting them. The problem is that the gorilla’s immune system is not able to cope with these infections. It is believed that some mountain gorilla populations have become smaller specifically as a result of catching disease from humans. If this continues to happen, and perhaps even worsens, then gorilla trekking will do little to save mountain gorillas from extinction. It is therefore imperative that trekkers adhere to the advice from their guides: no trekking if you are sick and no closer to the gorillas than 7 meters (21 feet). As research continues, we are likely to see stricter guidelines unfolding.
The future of gorilla trekking, although extremely popular, is uncertain. The demand for gorilla trekking continues to increase, yet only a limited number of gorilla trekking tourists are allowed per day. Gorilla trekking restrictions may increase in the near future, and the price will probably increase too. Thus, if you are fortunate enough to find your way to a meeting with these extraordinary animals, consider yourself one of an incredibly lucky few!