The advent discovery of mountain gorillas in 1902 was followed by studious primatologist research studies of the primates by Sigourney weaver and Dian Fossey which allowed the later to quickly discern mountain gorillas from other subspecies of gorillas inhabiting central African rainforests and Fossey became the icon pioneer of gorilla conservation.
Mountain gorillas faced myriad threats such as poaching, habitat loss, human disease transmission and civil wars which led to decline in their numbers to less than 500 and this was one of the compelling reasons for their strong conservation across Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo. Consequently gorilla population is on the rise as estimates stands at 880 individuals.
However, the international gorilla conservation group called upon the 3 countries if they were to ensure the future of gorillas as a prime tourism economic resource, they must engage in joint trans-boundary management of gorillas and their habitats with regard to human disease threats, costs and benefits of allowing tourists to see gorillas and security issues in the region.
Today there are 880 mountain gorillas in the whole world; half of these live in Uganda’s Bwindi impenetrable forest national park which mark the southern limit of the Albertine rift valley in southwestern Uganda.
Bwindi impenetrable forest national park covers an area of 331 sq km and is regarded as the most biologically diverse forest in the region with rare afromontane vegetation and high endemism of species was listed among the top 20 critical areas of important global biodiversity by the convention on biological diversity (CBD). The park has 120 species of mammals, 357 birds including 23 Albertine rift endemics, 200 butterflies and over 400 plant species
Because Uganda has half of the world’s last population of mountain gorillas, it makes it the most highly visited park regardless of travel time and distance in comparison to volcanoes national park Rwanda. The number of tourists have increased since 1994 from 1,300 to 20,000 tourists currently.
Tourists who come to see gorillas in Bwindi impenetrable forest national park make their way to visit other tourist destinations like Queen Elizabeth national park where the rare tree-climbing lions are seen in Ishasha sector or primates in Kibale national park.
Tourists who come for gorilla tracking in Uganda pay $ 600 USD each for a gorilla tracking permit. There are 14 groups of habituated gorillas. Every group of 8 tourists is allowed to see a group of gorillas for only ONE hour per day.
This implies that gorilla tourism is a big contributor to Uganda’s economy. In addition tourists also visit communities as well as stay in accommodations which add up another chunk of revenues through the demand of other local products and services.
Gorilla trekking officially started in 1994 in Uganda’s Bwindi national park with the view that gorilla tourism, if managed effectively would bring countless benefits such as employment and income opportunities and foreign exchange to communities around and Uganda at large.
Gorilla trekking is based on ecotourism which is a strategy to influence sustainable community development and conservation. Bwindi forest as an ecotourism destination for foreigners must at all costs alleviate poverty of locals rather than external funding and dependency on international conservation aid.
However, to achieve that it would involve many tradeoffs between environment and the livelihoods of people living near Bwindi impenetrable forest national park. Bwindi and Mgahinga national parks are surrounded by heavy human population meaning that gorilla tourism must fund conservation of gorillas; develop communities with alternative sources of income so that competition over the Bwindi forests is reduced.
With the new conservation policies restricting locals from accessing resources at the expense of gorillas, the park faced upsurge opposition from communities resulting into human wildlife conflicts.
This promoted Uganda Wildlife Authority to recognize the failing conservation polices in protecting gorillas and other wildlife, Uganda wildlife Authority along with other conservation organizations established initiates to make locals own the park through revenue sharing schemes where 20 % of the gorilla permits fees go to communities.
The revenues have improved lives of people though projects like building health care centers, schools, clean water and sustainable agriculture education.
In addition local communities around Bwindi have been encouraged to tap the market for tourists through selling crafts, food stuffs, honey including other tourist related services like transport and accommodation which has partly increased benefits of gorilla conservation and tourism.
While the parks remain completely out of bounds for local communities, on the other hand locals have been employed as guides, porters, community conservation leaders and rangers. Employment benefits coupled with community based projects are a means to change the negative attitude of people have towards gorillas. Hence people can co-exist with gorillas.
Gorilla tourism as an integrated part of ecotourism linking conservation of mountain gorillas and livelihoods of local people generate foreign exchange and increase earnings of local communities.
Mean while putting the benefits of gorilla tourism to local communities aside, Bwindi impenetrable forest national park is highly marketed for mountain gorillas as well as an important area of biodiversity which has attracted thousands of foreign tourists to spend a fortune and see gorillas.
Although tourist numbers have increased with revenues as mentioned above, tourist visits to habituated gorilla families are associated with negative impacts such risk of disease transmission because gorilla are susceptible human respiratory and infectious diseases like colds, diarrhea because gorillas share 95% of their genes with humans.
Gorilla trekking is highly restricted and tourists are encouraged to be environmentally responsible by not exploiting local cultures. While gorillas are increasingly being accustomed to people, it has also increased gorilla escapes to raid people’s crops and farms yet leading loss of food crops. This means that much more needs to be done to compensate local farmers rather than general benefits of gorilla tourism.
Ecotourism in Bwindi must therefore control the rate of creating trails in the forest for tourists to access gorillas and minimize gorilla interaction with tourists as well as regulate pressure exerted by foreign NGO’s on locals through foreign aid and donations.
The economic benefits of gorilla tourism and protected area management must regulate practices that are not compatible with the natural and traditional state of Bwindi forest. For instance modern building, use of chemicals for farming including the actions of non-governmental organizations that do not give back to the communities.
Uganda wildlife authority is diversifying local tourist products besides gorillas such as guided tours, hiking, festivals, Batwa cultural trails, community walks, biking and quality souvenirs which all add to the experience of gorilla trekking. UWA is also building capacity to meet demands of visitors through working together with tour operators in marketing and selling local tourist products and services.
Gorilla trekking permits cost a fee of $ 600 per person, the activity is done all year round but the dry season between July to September and December to February is preferred because of trekking conditions get quite easier while the wet season for the months of April, May and November has its benefits of discounted permits sales at $ 450 per person.