Touched by a Wild Mountain Gorilla

I’ll admit it, we all crave it, even those of us working in mountain gorilla conservation- direct physical contact with mountain gorillas.

Katie Frohardt wrote about her impulse to touch a mountain gorilla in her reflection of her time with IGCP in the 1990s, “At one point when the snare had been removed, I found myself quite near to the right foot of the female gorilla. I remember looking at that foot, and being transfixed. Without even really realizing that I was doing it, I had reached out my hand towards her foot, and was just inches away from touching her. At that point, I remember José very gently touching my hand, and shaking his head. Of course, I had no gloves on, and he was preventing my misstep, and protecting the mountain gorilla. I remember him doing this with real kindness, and with a look that made me know that he understood what I had just experienced. That was my first real day with IGCP.”

So, while the video that has gone viral is quite mesmerizing, it raises a lot of fears in the conservation community. It certainly isn’t the first time that mountain gorillas have interacted with people outside of the park, and it won’t be the last. And there is no blame to be placed. The fact is that habituated gorillas leave park boundaries, having overcome their natural fear of humans.

The mountain gorillas of Buhoma, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, are now quite notorious for it, roaming through the tourist lodges like they themselves are guests. And tourists to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda are surprised to find that they might be visiting mountain gorillas outside of the park, in a farmer’s field or in a eucalyptus plantation.

A few months ago, gorilla groups monitored for research in Volcanoes National Park even spent the night outside of the park, forcing rangers to camp alongside them to protect and monitor them. And there are gorilla groups as well as a lone silverback that are also occasionally range outside of Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, causing neighboring farmers grief and crop loss.

There are several other facts to keep in mind: Tourism is vital to the conservation of mountain gorillas, allowing for regular monitoring of mountain gorilla groups and allowing for veterinary intervention when necessary. Tourism also brings in much-needed revenue to fund park operations and community conservation activities as well as contribute to the national and local economies.

Here are the hard facts: Humans can spread diseases to mountain gorillas and disease outbreaks among mountain gorillas have been recorded in the past, including scabies and respiratory disease. Although it is hard to believe it when seeing the ease at which mountain gorillas can include humans in their social families, mountain gorillas are wild, even those in habituated groups.
So now you see the delicate balance that must be struck in tourism as a means for wildlife conservation. Tourist guidelines are in place within the region, a pivotal initiative for IGCP as an advocate for responsible mountain gorilla tourism. We advocate for managing, to the very best of our collective abilities, tourism that carries the smallest risk to people and mountain gorillas.

This is a phenomenon that won’t go away. It will take a constant effort on behalf of conservation organizations like IGCP, park rangers and managers, lodge employees and managers, as well as tourists to take the steps necessary to protect the critically endangered mountain gorillas. Behind the scenes, continued efforts are underway.

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