Up close and primal

In a bid to protect some of the world’s most endangered primates, two national parks in Uganda are giving tourists the opportunity to encounter wild gorillas and chimps in closer proximity than ever before

Trekking with mountain gorillas has been the stuff of bucket lists ever since David Attenborough’s famous gorilla encounter in Rwanda captured the world’s imagination in 1978. While that offered a spot of much-needed PR, it was groundbreaking American primatologist Dian Fossey who was pivotal in shifting the global perception of the animal from King Kong to gentle giant of the forest.

In the 1960s and 1970s mountain gorillas were threatened to near extinction by poaching, disease and rebel militia – a plight that was brought to the world’s attention by Fossey. And despite being a now critically endangered species with an estimated 880 left in the wild, the fact they are here at all defies statistics. In their darkest hour, gorilla numbers plummeted to just 250 in Central and East Africa. The scarcest of the four subspecies, mountain gorillas, are now only found in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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Tourists embarking on a full-day trek to catch just an hour in the presence of these splendid beasts might not be aware of the immense role they are playing potentially in their survival. As the legendary primate researcher and humanitarian Jane Goodall once said: “It’s tourism involvement with the mountain gorillas that saved them.”

Now several projects in Uganda are taking the role of eco-tourism one stage further in a last ditch attempt to strike them off the endangered species list.

Humans share 98 per cent of gorillas’ DNA. Our almost identical genes have made it possible for a process called habituation to be implemented, whereby researchers and rangers repeatedly visit groups of wild gorillas and chimps until they tolerate the presence of humans.

And while habituation is not an entirely new concept, its deployment with tourists is a more recent development – helping to financially support the ongoing conservation work that traditional habituation provides.

The very first groups of gorillas were habituated to researchers in Bwindi’s forests (located in the country’s south-western frontier) in the early 1990s, with only political instability in the 1970s and 1980s preventing it from happening earlier. There are currently 400 individuals and 38 gorilla families living in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, 11 of which have been habituated for tourism. The area’s designation as a world heritage site in 1994 has been seen as a real lifeline. Unfortunately, in neighbouring Virunga’s mountain ranges, where the species was first discovered in 1902, the future is not so rosy. Its fragile ecosystem is constantly under threat from oil drilling and in the past two decades, either armed rebels or poachers have killed more than 130 rangers.

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But in Bwindi the situation is reassuringly stable, helped by giving locals a stake in their local wildlife through community-based conservation, which has made them advocates for the gorillas’ survival. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates one mountain gorilla can indirectly generate US$2.5 million over its lifetime in income. This works on both a local and national level. It’s estimated that US$8 from every gorilla trek goes directly to impoverished locals and communities receive 20 per cent of the entry fees generated from the park. Then there are spin-offs like souvenir shops and hotels as well as national park jobs. On a wider scale, gorilla tourism contributes around 80 per cent to the national wildlife authority’s entire budget. Although a typical gorilla tourist comes here to lock eyes with one of our closest ancestors, they end up visiting other regional parks and attractions too, which infiltrates the wider economy.

Thankfully the delicate balance between nature and tourism is carefully managed in Bwindi, with only 88 permits issued a day across the 331 square kilometre park. And while gorilla trekking will make a US$600 dent in the average visitor’s wallet, habituation starts at US$1,500, buying you four hours in the company of these powerful yet peaceful animals.

Tourists embarking on a full-day trek to mountain gorillas may be blissfully unaware of the immense role they’re playing in their survival

However, the experience is less about being a voyeur and more about being an active participant in the conservation process. Local gorilla vet and researcher Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka says: “Tourists are basically researchers for the day with minimal behavioural disturbance to the gorillas.” In groups limited to four, they get to track the gorillas and look for signs like fresh dung and discarded fruit with rangers and researchers. “The park rangers and trackers habituate gorillas from 100 metres right down to five.” It’s a lengthy process that can take anywhere from two to four years. Kalema-Zikusoka is one of Bwindi’s most respected gorilla doctors who dispense hands-on medical care to ill and injured habituated mountain gorillas as part of a non-profit organisation that operates in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to a gorilla research paper written by Martha Robbins (director of the Bwindi Mountain Gorilla Project): “Veterinary interventions could account for up to 40 per cent of the difference in growth rates between habituated versus unhabituated gorillas.”

Teams of rangers track the animals in a bid to habituate. Eventually they get to know exactly when the gorillas and chimps are happy, sad, and playful
Teams of rangers track the animals in a bid to habituate. Eventually they get to know exactly when the gorillas and chimps are happy, sad, and playful

Inevitably, there are risks to exposing gorillas to humans. As well as potentially contracting diseases from humans, they can begin to lose their fear of humans, making them more vulnerable to poachers. Because of our near-identical DNA, even a common cold can make an entire family of gorillas sick, meaning tourists have to guarantee a clean bill of health before venturing into their habitat. Still, the net results are healthier population growth, as British primatologist Richard Wrangham explains: “Even though poachers have sometimes killed individuals in habituated groups (26 deaths in four years), habituated groups have grown overall at a steady and very encouraging rate (4.1 per cent per year). By contrast, the total number of gorillas in the unhabituated groups has tended to decline (0.7 per cent per year). If you want to protect mountain gorillas, the best thing to do is to habituate them. Habituation protects, among other things, by keeping poachers away.” And this is largely thanks to the research field staff, whose daily monitoring of the gorillas have made them the first line of defence against poachers. Mountain gorillas are incapable of surviving in zoos so the researchers’ ability to observe our mighty mountain cousins at close range has generated new data on their behaviour, ecology and physiology, thanks to habituation.

But when it comes to the gorillas’ emotional wellbeing, it is the rangers who have forged a special relationship. “When you look at their faces and their mouth you know they are sad,” reveals head guide and ranger Augustine Muhangi, at Rushaga in the park’s southern sector. Muhangi has become something of a behavioural expert. “If they have watery stools they are not happy. If they walk for more than a kilometre a day – they are not happy.” You naturally get to know their personalities too. “There is a silverback called Rusheenya (meaning destroyer), who is very powerful and breaks branches, a young male called Kazani (which translates as playful) and females Raha (lively) and Mwiza (the beautiful one).”

Around 350km north in the tropical rainforests of Kibale resides the highest concentration of primates in Africa and another habituation project that is safeguarding the future of our closest living relatives – chimpanzees. Just like gorillas, they have suffered at the hands of humans, with an estimated 170,000 living in tropical Africa, compared to one million just 50 years ago. As well as being slaughtered for their babies and hunted for their meat, habitat destruction and Ebola have also contributed to their near-demise. But an expanding project in Kibale National Park, home to 1,450 chimps (the largest single population in Uganda), is being helmed by 80 dedicated rangers on a mission to reverse their fortunes through habituation.

While tourism supports conservation, the parks are still mindful of the animals in Bwindi, meaning that only 88 permits are issued per day
While tourism supports conservation, the parks are still mindful of the animals in Bwindi, meaning that only 88 permits are issued per day

It takes much longer to habituate a chimpanzee versus a gorilla (between five to nine years) because the community tends to break off in groups of six or fewer to feed, travel and sleep before coming together again. Four of the five ongoing projects in Kibale have habituated these arboreal apes solely for research. One such group is the Kanyawara community, comprising 60 chimps, the subjects of a long-term field study called the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, founded in 1987 by Wrangham. “In the case of groups habituated for research like Kanyawara,” says Wrangham, “the study provides information about natural history (leading to stories and movies that interest people and thereby promote support), disease (which is helpful for conservation) and conservation threats. The Kanyawara community has grown gently since we started habituating 30 years ago and continues to go from strength to strength.”

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One man who has probably spent more time hanging out with chimps than his fellow homo sapiens is 63-year-old guide Kyamukama Silver, who has dedicated 25 years to Kibale’s chimps. Silver brandishes a rifle over one shoulder and machete in one hand and we battle through dense thicket in the hope of encountering a few of the highly social animals, as part of the park’s dawn-to-dusk chimpanzee habituation experience.

Inevitably, there are risks with exposing gorillas to humans, who as well as potentially contracting diseases from us, can also lose their fear, making them more vulnerable to poachers

In reality, tourists spend more time listening to the deafening hoots and screams of the Kanyanchu chimp community or catching a glimpse of a limb hanging from the tree canopy, where they spend hours grazing on fruit and berries (which you quickly learn to expertly dodge). “They even self-medicate by eating bitter plants from the forest,” says Silver, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of our closest kin. But unlike their mountain cousins, chimpanzees can move quickly over densely vegetated terrain so tourists can find themselves suddenly traversing steep, muddy slopes – with their efforts rewarded with hours watching them groom, play, breastfeed, patrol and even smile. Habituating Kanyanchu for tourism has proven to be a vital revenue stream for the park, according to Wrangham. “[In Kibale] one of the first things I did was to promote an eco-tourism group and help habituate a community that became the Kanyanchu tourist group, which has led to consistent support from the Ugandan government for the conservation of Kibale,” he says.

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Silver is heading into retirement next year but that won’t stop him visiting his ape family. With another community called Buraiga on track to be fully habituated for tourists soon, it looks like Kibale’s chimps have a fighting chance to shift primate populations in the right direction.

More than ever, the future of these vulnerable chimps and gorillas is in the hands of the local communities. The WWF acknowledges this: “Ecotourism – socially and environmentally responsible tourist visits, including carefully guided trips to see gorillas – can also be an important way for local people to gain benefit from living in close proximity to gorillas.”

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The key is putting local people in the frontline of its sustainable ecotourism initiatives. While one Ugandan project uses community patrols to monitor the gorillas’ movements and chase them back into the forest if they stray onto agricultural land, another is helping local people to develop tea plantations (the one crop gorillas hate) that serve as a buffer between the mountain gorillas and villages.

As long as the economic value of ecotourism works in favour of local communities and human interest in seeing our closest kin in the wild continues, habituation could very well be the lifeline that primates so desperately need.

 Words and images: Sarah Freeman

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