Trekking mountain gorillas in their natural habitat is undeniably a wonderful, breathtaking and unforgettable experience. Coming face to face with these humble giants of the jungle and getting to witness their human-like characters – of adult females grooming and breastfeeding their infants and dominant Silverbacks (group heads) defending their group members, fills one with admiration for the great apes and the wish that they can live long and safely enough for the next generations to see!
Protected area authorities with support from conservation institutions continue to invest and do so much to secure the future for this wild world heritage – the mountain gorilla. Tourists have been sensitized on mountain gorilla trekking rules while park adjacent communities have been engaged to benefit from conservation and live harmoniously with wildlife.
The International Union of Conservation for Nature (IUCN) provides a set of principles for the best practice guidelines for great ape tourism (Macfie and Williamson, 2010), readily available to read online: Only one visit per day to a gorilla group, not more than 8 tourists/visitors per gorilla group, maximum of one hour of viewing per day, observe a safe distance between the tourist and the gorillas (recommended 10 m without masks, 7 m with masks). The purpose of the Gorilla Rules is to minimize stress on the gorillas, reduce the risk of disease transmission, protect the habitat as well as make gorilla tourism sustainable. The rules are based on precautionary principles to ensure tourism does not adversely affect mountain gorillas.
While it is true that tourism is a strategy to fund conservation, it is also true that if gorilla and other ape tourism, like that of the chimpanzee, isn’t based on sound conservation principles, odds are that economic objectives will take precedence, with likely consequences detrimental to the gorilla population and their habitat.
The onus to observe and respect these principles is everyone’s responsibility but most especially the protected area authorities, the tourist and the tour operator. Tourists need to be sensitized on the gorilla rules by both the protected area authorities and their tour fixers. On the other hand, travel fixers need to do a better job packaging and marketing their services appropriately. So often some tour companies have flooded the media with inappropriate marketing images and videos of tourists holding or very close to the gorillas and messages promising their clients a similar experience if entrusted with their trip. This is unacceptable and very dangerous because it raises the expectations of the tourist which if not met causes misunderstandings between them and the tour guides/rangers.
Tourists, too, need to be mindful of the safe distance between them and the gorillas when trekking and the kinds of images and videos they take and share on social media. Images and videos showing a breach of the gorilla rules should never be posted and or shared on public media, simply because they send and perpetuate the wrong message out there and jeopardize responsible mountain gorilla tourism efforts and conservation at large.
These past few days, social media has been awash with images of mountain gorillas from Senkwekwe mountain gorilla center in Virunga National Park holding and playing with their care takers. While this is done to the orphaned gorillas to show care and give them a sense of belonging under professional long-term care supervision, such images potentially send the wrong message about mountain gorilla conservation and tourism to the wider public. Similarly, last month, the Jane Goodall Institute raised concerns about inappropriate videos on social media hurting chimpanzees.
There’s a need for mass awareness creation on the importance of respecting mountain gorillas through respect of the rules that are there to protect them, and the need for sharing appropriate gorilla tourism content on public media. We need to equip tourists and everyone else with the tools/knowledge to become mountain gorilla guardians and ambassadors.
At the coalition International Gorilla Conservation Programme, securing the future for mountain gorillas through the promotion of responsible tourism is one of the key areas of focus. IGCP in partnership with Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN) is running a Gorilla Friendly™ Pledge, an on-line campaign aimed at encouraging all tourists to pledge to observe the gorilla tourism rules through the gorilla friendly pledge website,http://www.gorillafriendly.org/ . Taking the pledge re-affirms one’s willingness to comply to the gorilla visitation rules and regulations. While observing the rules gives the tourist a rewarding experience and minimizes the risk of disease transmission to and behavior change of the gorillas.
The awareness raising campaign was developed to prepare the tourist for their trekking experience by giving them information that can guarantee them a rewarding experience. If observed, gorilla rules can enhance your time with the gorillas while giving one the opportunity to be a responsible tourist.
Do you love and care for the mountain gorillas? You can contribute to their safety, protection and survival by pledging to comply to the gorilla visitation rules and regulations. Be #GorillaFriendly #TakeThePledge, http://www.gorillafriendly.org/pledge/and make your contribution remarkable!
By visiting the mountain gorilla through organized tourism, you contribute to their continued survival!