26 Jul Conservation Travel: A Source of Hope for Africa’s Endangered Gorillas
Twenty-four years ago, I stood on the side of a mountain in central Africa and captured a gaze that remains seared in my memory. Sitting just feet away was a 600-pound silverback gorilla named Maheshe. He munched nonchalantly on leaves, pulling branches down and stripping them with a quick swipe through his powerful jaws, looking intently at our small group of six onlookers with his liquid brown eyes.
Maheshe was the patriarch of a lively family of 16 females and youngsters in whose company we spent an hour that would affect me forever. To share that look, to ponder what he might have been thinking, to muse on the intelligence and gravitas in his face, its features so like our own; to understand how at risk he was from my own species, to feel sheer joy at watching him in his native habitat… For a young woman who had spent little time outside North America at that point, it was a profound encounter.
It had taken serious effort to reach the gorillas. We set out early in the morning from the park headquarters, passing through green fields of tea where women in bright head wraps bent to pick the leaves. Soon, the dirt track dwindled to a narrow trail that entered the rain forest. We started climbing, stepping over giant roots and dodging hanging vines as the trail petered out. Our trackers surveyed the forest, looking for signs — fresh scat on the ground, a nest indicating a recent sleeping spot — to indicate which direction we should go. They slashed a way forward with huge machetes, easing our passage through the heavy understory.
Sweat coursed in rivulets down my face, despite the bandana I wore, and I checked periodically to be sure my pants were still stuffed into my thick hiking socks to avert any ants that sought to crawl up my legs. In a few hours, we had our reward: There, in a clearing, sat Maheshe. We watched him, transfixed, for what felt like a long time, then moved a bit farther to where his offspring were playing in the trees. Though we had just an hour with the gorillas, it could have been a day.
Africa’s Gorillas in Peril
I met Maheshe in 1993, in a remote tract of mountains on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then called Zaire. His troop was among a handful of eastern lowland gorilla groups habituated to tourists. And Maheshe was famous: His image was on the 50,000 Zaire note. The bill was commonly called a “maheshe” in casual parlance.
We had arrived on a rugged overland truck safari from Burundi, crossing the border and skirting the sapphire waters of Lake Kivu en route to Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a huge preserve near the nexus of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. This tri-border region is where many of Africa’s remaining gorillas live, including all of its roughly 900 endangered mountain gorillas.
A few months after we left Maheshe, he vanished. Well known to the devoted rangers and trackers in the park, his disappearance portended one thing: his likely demise at the hands of poachers. His fate was confirmed in 1995, when his remains were found without his head and hands — turned into trophies that would garner large sums for his killers.
Poaching became rampant in the months following my visit, as this part of the world devolved into horrific warfare and civil strife. The Rwandan genocide in 1994 sent millions fleeing over the border into the Lake Kivu basin and the forested hills beyond. The gorillas’ protectors were fighting for their lives, making it difficult to fight for the gorillas’ lives as well, though courageous park staff tried, at great personal risk.
The eastern lowland gorilla population in Kahuzi-Biega National Park dropped from about 600 when I was there to a mere 125 or so by 2008. As unrest in the region has abated in recent years, their numbers are rebounding; 181 were counted in a 2011 census. Overall, though, gorillas have suffered a catastrophic decline in the DRC, their numbers falling by 75 percent over 20 years according to a 2016 study. To blame, in addition to poaching, are deforestation, mining for minerals used in mobile phone technology, and the bushmeat trade. The eastern lowland gorilla, like the mountain gorilla, remains critically endangered.
Gorilla Trekking: A Force for Conservation
Responsible safari tourism provides a beacon of hope — arguably the sole hope — for the future of Africa’s gorillas. As tourism dollars flow into communities surrounding the parks, local people realize the gorillas are worth more alive than dead. For several decades, the gorilla countries of central Africa have charged daily fees for guided treks, with a portion of the money going directly to communities bordering the parks. The funds are used to pay for schools, health care and other crucial needs.
Such fees, akin to the $100 per-person per-day entry fee to Galapagos National Park, exemplify “conservation travel” at work: sustainable travel that supports the protection of nature and wildlife.
Gorilla trekking into Kahuzi-Biega has resumed on a limited basis in recent years, though travel warnings deter most visitors to the DRC. Neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, however, offer plentiful safe opportunities to track mountain gorillas. The price to participate in such conservation travel efforts, however, is steep. And in Rwanda, it just got steeper.
In May, the Rwanda Development Board announced a bold move: It would double the price from $750 to $1,500 for the opportunity to track gorillas inside Volcanoes National Park, including a 1-hour visit with a habituated family troop.
Board CEO Claire Akamanzi says the price hike “aims to strengthen conservation efforts and contribute more to the development of communities” living around the park. Along with the rise in tariff, communities will see a greater percentage of revenue sharing, increasing from 5 percent to 10 percent, to “fund development projects and empower them economically.”
Some observers worry that the higher fee for the privilege of tracking gorillas could backfire, causing travelers to balk at the cost and reducing overall tourist numbers. Others believe it’s the right move, putting an appropriate price on one of the world’s rarest and most moving nature travel experiences.
It’s also possible that neighboring Uganda could see an uptick in gorilla safari tourism, since it has opted to hold the price on its gorilla trekking permits for at least 12 months following Rwanda’s announcement. Currently, a Ugandan permit costs $600 at peak season and $450 during low season.
Uganda Tourism Board CEO Stephen Asiimwe said,”We think it is important that not only a wealthy minority can get the chance to experience these animals in their natural environment but [also] everyone who loves gorillas and wants to contribute to their conservation.”
Permits in the DRC are least expensive. The fee to trek in Virungas National Park, re-opened to gorilla tourism a few years ago, costs $400 at high season and $350 during the wet season from May to October.
With the institution of the higher fees, Rwanda is positioned to become the leader in luxury gorilla safaris, whereas Uganda may remain more accessible to less well-heeled tourists, though in any case, tracking wild gorillas is an expensive prospect. But without a doubt, the quality of the encounter — a chance to spend quiet time at close range with a family of gorillas — is an experience that’s hard to put a price on.
See Africa’s Endangered Gorillas with the Adventure Collection
Join Adventure Collection members Bushtracks and Natural Habitat Adventures to trek in search of Africa’s mountain gorillas. Both companies offer gorilla-focused safaris in Rwanda and Uganda (which may feature other primates, too, such as chimpanzees, colobus monkeys and many more). Natural Habitat Adventures offers a specialized photography safari that includes both Rwanda and Uganda, while Bushtracks can also arrange custom safaris into the little-visited Congo Basin to see western lowland gorillas and rare bonobo chimpanzees.
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