Ugandan gorillas under threat, tourist dollars protect
By Emmanuel Leroux-Nega, AFP
July 13, 2014, 12:00 am TWN
BWINDI, Uganda -- Powerfully pushing through thick jungle, the mountain gorilla is fearless in the face of strangers on his territory, but the endangered ape is unaware the family group he guards survives by the thinnest of threads.
The gorillas here in Uganda's lush forests are protected by the economic lifeline they create for remote communities from the tourist dollars they generate, providing a key incentive for humans to protect the giant animals.
The forest in Uganda's far southwest is home to an estimated 400 mountain gorillas — roughly half of the world's population — including several families which have been habituated to human presence.
But it is the income from tourism that is helping protect the animals, which in the past were regularly hunted for their meat, and by farmers to protect their crops.
"In order to protect this endangered specie we needed to show the economic benefit of these gorillas," said Charles Tumwesigye, deputy head of conservation for the government's Ugandan Wildlife Authority.
"Tourism started as a way of showing the people that gorillas can be economically important, that we can earn revenue which can improve your livelihood".
Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo are the only countries in the world where you can see the giant primates.
But the privilege comes at a high price, costing some US$600 for a single, brief visit.
No Silver Bullet
Knowing the cash supports the gorillas "helps to swallow the pill", said Blaise Peccia-Galleto, a French tourist.
"We are willing to pay that kind of money because we know that a big part of those resources are reinvested in the preservation of the species," he said. "We also feel like we've experienced something very exclusive."
Threats to the mountain gorilla — including war, habitat destruction and disease — were once thought to be so severe that the species could become extinct by the end of the 20th century, but the population has increased significantly in the last 30 years, largely due to improved conservation efforts.
"People were stopped from entering into the forest, where they used to get all their free wild game meat," Seith Byarugaba said, a tourist operator organising gorilla trips and running a lodge.
"People are now happy because there is some revenue that comes from gorilla tracking."
Conflict remains, such as the destruction of crops and property, and competition for natural resources.
Habitat destruction and human population growth increasingly bring locals into contact with the gorillas, resulting in the transmission of human diseases and occasional animal attacks.
Ape experts this week warned that accelerated and unsustainable exploitation of the earth's primary natural resources has become a major threat to apes in Africa and Asia, with extraction of natural resources — including timber, minerals, oil and gas — devastating their prime habitat.
This file photo taken on May 24 shows a baby mountain gorilla during a gorilla trek in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, in Uganda. (AFP)