Privileged to have spent more than 20 years supporting great ape protection efforts in Africa, I have learned a great deal during this time about what it takes to implement complex conservation projects in the field. First and foremost, there is no ‘silver bullet’ to overcoming all of the immense conservation challenges facing great apes today. However, there are other key lessons that have emerged as well, and I’ve seen first-hand that positive conservation impact can be achieved with the appropriate range of interventions, but they must be tailored to the unique context of each region.
There are nine African great ape taxa among the four commonly recognized species (western and eastern gorilla, chimpanzee and bonobo), all of which are either Endangered or Critically Endangered. I currently write from Rwanda, the shining example of conservation success within the great ape community–the mountain gorilla is the only taxa of great ape worldwide experiencing a population increase. However even here we cannot be complacent – mountain gorilla populations remain fragile and still face numerous threats.
While previously working in Rwanda shortly after the genocide, I witnessed the powerful role that tourism played in bringing the mountain gorillas back from a significant population decline. I endeavored to help replicate this model in Central Africa with western lowland gorillas, where at that time, no successful gorilla habituation projects existed. Habituating the gorillas, or, slowly acclimating them to human presence through repeated contacts, is a perquisite to starting a tourism program. There were many reasons for this lack of success: western gorilla home ranges are considerably larger than mountain gorillas and they are heavily hunted, making them very fearful of humans in their midst. Western gorillas travel anywhere from 3-6 times farther per day than do their mountain gorilla cousins, on average, to search for sparsely and seasonally distributed fruits; moreover, these challenges are exacerbated by the fact that tracking animals is much more difficult in the dense lowland forest habitat.