Tourist treks helped save gorillas. What happens in lockdown?

Why We Wrote This

Wildlife tourism has come to seem like an all-around win: for animals, surrounding communities, and visitors. Its history isn’t so simple, though, and COVID-19 has exposed more challenges – but also calls for change.

Ben Curtis/AP/File
Tourists Sarah and John Scott from Worcester, England, take a step back as a male silverback mountain gorilla unexpectedly steps out on Mount Bisoke volcano in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda on Sept. 4, 2015. In some parts of the region, tourists and researchers routinely trek into the undergrowth to see gorillas in their natural habitat.

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In recent years, a quarter of new jobs have been in tourism. And in Africa, more than a third of travel jobs are in wildlife tourism – helping to support threatened animals and the human communities that surround them. 

Now, the sudden crash of the travel sector amid COVID-19 has led to a moment of reckoning. Funds for mountain gorilla conservation, for example, come in large part from the pricey tickets visitors buy for “gorilla treks” in Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo. And while conservation has a troubled history here, ecotourism has also benefited local residents with new jobs and revenue-sharing agreements. Today, with parks shuttered, money has evaporated for thousands of guides, hotel workers, cooks, cleaners, and souvenir saleswomen. 

So as tourism dries up, experts have begun to call for policies to make future crises less catastrophic.

“Tourism has transformed conservation in Africa, but we see now that tourism is not a silver bullet,” says Alice Ruhweza of the World Wildlife Fund. For the continent’s wildlife and the people who depend on it, she says, conservationists will have to find new and more diverse sources of funding to protect them. 

It’s hard to imagine a wildlife encounter more intimate than what tourists experience in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Families of mountain gorillas saunter past visitors on their oversized knuckles, seemingly unconcerned by their human observers. Baby gorillas climb and tumble over their parents in the grass. Adults recline in the thick brush like men sprawled out for Sunday football on a La-Z-Boy recliner.

For visitors, gorilla treks are often a bucket list highlight, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get up close and personal with one of humanity’s closest relatives, with whom we share 98% of our genetic material. But the biggest value of tourism is to the gorillas themselves. Since treks began in Rwanda in the late 1970s, they have become a crucial part of saving mountain gorillas from their poaching-driven slide toward extinction. Today, they are the only great apes whose population is growing. And while conservation has a troubled history here, in recent years ecotourism has often benefited local residents too, creating jobs and providing cash in revenue-sharing agreements to poor communities near national parks.

But now, both the gorillas and their human neighbors face a new threat: the sudden decline of tourism in the wake of the coronavirus. Since the disease began to spread in east Africa in March, the parks where tourists can visit gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo have been shuttered. Funds for gorilla conservation have evaporated, along with the cash that helped thousands of guides, hotel workers, cooks, cleaners, and souvenir saleswomen keep their families afloat. Early this month, a gorilla named Rafiki was killed in Bwindi by men who say they stabbed the animal in self-defense while illegally subsistence hunting – the first such killing in nearly a decade.

Travel and tourism account for more than 10% of the world’s gross domestic product, and in recent years, one in four new jobs on our planet was in tourism. Across the world, wildlife tourism supports nearly 22 million jobs, and in Africa, more than a third of all travel jobs are in wildlife tourism.

So here, more than perhaps anywhere else in the world, the sudden crash of the tourism sector has led to a moment of reckoning. “Tourism has transformed conservation in Africa, but we see now that tourism is not a silver bullet,” says Alice Ruhweza, the Africa regional director for the World Wildlife Fund. For both the continent’s wildlife and the people who depend on them, she says, conservationists will have to find new and more diverse sources of funding to protect them.  

Felipe Dana/AP/File
A silverback mountain gorilla named Segasira sits among plants in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda on Sept. 2, 2019. Many of the region's natural parks have barred visitors amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sudden collapse

In much of Africa, conservation has leaned heavily on tourism for decades. And that history has, at times, been a dark one. Indigenous communities were displaced in the creation of most of the world’s national parks, including tens of thousands of people in Africa. In the gorilla habitat that straddles Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo, communities of Batwa, a regional ethnic minority, have become so-called “conservation refugees,” violently removed from their ancestral lands to make way for parks to protect the gorillas and other animals. Today, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) gives communities neighboring its parks 20% of gate entry fees, plus $10 from every $700 permit purchased by tourists to trek with gorillas. This money has gone to building schools and health centers, among other community projects. But most Batwa in particular continue to live in dire poverty.

Still, the parks have become crucial in conservation efforts, drawing growing numbers of mostly international tourists willing to pay big money to have up-close encounters with gorillas. By 2018, mountain gorillas were downgraded from “critically endangered” to “endangered”: a result, in part, of the attention and money brought by tourism. Today, there are about 1,000 living in the wild – just under half of them, 459, in Bwindi, according to the 2019 census conducted by the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration.

Between 2018 and 2019, those 459 gorillas received more than 37,000 visitors, according to the UWA, each paying $700 for the privilege of a one-hour trek with the primates. (Tourists in Rwanda pay $1,500 for the same experience, and the price is $400 across the border in Congo).

Those visitors also spent time in local lodges, frequented local restaurants, and bought carved wooden gorilla sculptures from local women.

Until suddenly this March, all that was gone.

One day, Ivan Batuma was prepping Rushaga Gorilla Camp, the rustic lodge clinging to the edge of a hillside near Bwindi that he manages, for another batch of visitors. The next, Mr. Batuma, who also sits on the board of the UWA, was laying off half his staff and scrambling for an alternate source of income.

“I don’t expect income from my hotel in the near future,” he says. “I am looking at having [international] guests [next] March at the earliest.”

“One way to think about tourism is this – when the center collapses, everything else collapses around it,” says Judy Kepher-Gona, the founder of Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda, a tourism consultancy based in Nairobi. “If you had 10,000 people relying indirectly on tourism for their incomes, then all at once you can have 10,00 people out of a job.”

New vision?

So as parks around the continent have closed, she says, tourism experts have begun to call for policies to be put in place to make future crises less catastrophic.

One way to do that, Ms. Kepher-Gona says, is to require that governments and private parks funnel tourism dollars not simply into aid projects for local communities, but also into helping them jumpstart industries unrelated to tourism – like farming or manufacturing.

“Ultimately it doesn’t serve anyone for local communities to be so dependent on foreign tourists,” she says. “Making the communities around you resilient is good business.”

Amid the pandemic, “there are even more pressing reasons to invest in communities that protect nature through wildlife tourism and conservation,” wrote Midori Paxton, head of ecosystems and biodiversity at the United Nations Development Program, in a recent piece on the UNDP website. “COVID-19 recovery packages must include this investment” to protect people’s economic and physical well-being, she argued.

For now though, communities around Bwindi are waiting for their source of income to return. In the park itself, rangers slip on face masks, squirt sanitizer onto their hands, and head out to visit the gorillas, so that they won’t become unaccustomed to human contact and migrate elsewhere. Because gorillas share so much DNA with humans, they are susceptible to human diseases like COVID-19 as well, and staff here are worried that it may be a long time before it’s safe for tourists to interact with them again.

For now, the rangers approach the gorillas like they would other people, keeping a distance of at least two meters – trying, in a difficult time, to continue being good neighbors.

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