In a world where the population is increasing by about 82 million people per year, areas of true wilderness on the planet are few and far between.
As the human population multiplies, wildlife habitats of all types are under pressure from a range of threats including agriculture, industrial expansion, poaching, climate change, and human-borne diseases.
In countries throughout Africa, gorillas are bearing the brunt of these immense pressures.
Though their numbers have increased slightly in recent years, (representing a rare conservation success story), mountain gorillas, in particular, are critically endangered thanks to limited habitat, intense human encroachment, and potential diseases, according to The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International website.
With only about 1,000 individuals remaining they are one of the world’s most endangered animals.
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What’s more, mountain gorillas are the only wild ape population whose numbers are known to be on the rise. Other gorilla populations, by contrast, are plummeting.
Over the past 20 years, the numbers of Grauer’s gorillas in Congo, for instance, has shrunk by 77 percent and they are now considered to be one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International reported in 2018.
September 24 is World Gorilla Day, an annual event kicked-off in 2017 with the goal of celebrating gorillas and empowering communities around the globe to take action to help fight for the survival of mankind’s closest relative.
While there are numerous organizations and individuals around the world dedicated to this effort, the fact is that continuing to raise awareness and investment about the plight of gorillas remains essential.
Importantly, there are ways that you, the global traveler, can take part in the preservation effort.
Ecotourism has emerged as an indispensable part of the future of gorillas. It’s something nearly all of us can engage in, said Nick Wilson, head of product for Natural World Safaris.
By visiting the handful of areas in Africa where gorillas continue to exist and purchasing gorilla tracking permits, you are helping fund an increase in gorilla populations, Wilson explained.
When you hire a porter for your trek or buy goods from local communities, you are helping locals earn an honest living while simultaneously proving to the people who live in gorilla range states – from heads of state to rural farmers – that gorillas are worth more alive than dead.
“Without the support and cooperation of the men and women who share their country with gorillas, these great apes will be doomed to extinction,” explained Wilson, whose own company has a long history of sending clients on transformative gorilla tracking expeditions throughout Africa.
“We need to recognize that the greatest value of wildlife conservation is any incentive an animal’s existence might provide to surrounding communities,” continued Wilson. “There is no conservation without respecting human rights, and any conservation action which does not care about human rights is another form of extractive industry.”
Stacy Fiorentinos, president of Classic Escapes, another tour company that specializes in African safaris focused on conservation, offers a similar assessment of the critical importance of tourism-related gorilla treks.
“Part of the reason gorillas are so protected now is that locals are realizing the value of the gorilla,” said Fiorentinos. “They were almost extinct and now numbers are rising and it’s because of the protection they get from local communities that are seeing and realizing the value of saving them.”
It’s not just locals who have begun to grasp the value of preserving gorillas, Fiorentinos added, the governments in some of the African nations where gorillas still exist are stepping in ever more aggressively to protect critical habitat.
“For instance, in Uganda and Rwanda, there are whole sections of mountains that were completely cleared and are now tea plantations, where people are no longer allowed to cut anything anymore,” Fiorentinos explained. “Whatever has been cut, has been cut, but virgin forests cannot be touched any longer. The government is taking more action to protect gorillas.”
The first attempt at gorilla tourism took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kahuzi-Biéga National Park in 1973, with the eastern lowland gorillas, explained Wilson.
However, tourism was subsequently suspended in the DRC and it wasn’t until 1979 that the concept truly got off the ground.
The first gorillas that were properly habituated to the presence of humans for the purpose of ecotourism were mountain gorillas, specifically mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.
In 1979 the first gorilla trekking safaris were launched and by the late 1980s, the sale of gorilla permits had already grown to be Rwanda’s third-largest source of revenue, explained Wilson.
Much later, in 1993, Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park also began offering gorilla trekking safaris, with Virunga National Park following suit within the last 10 years.
Though there are several types of gorillas in the world today, only a few species are accessible to tourists.
Cross River gorillas make their home in Nigeria and Cameroon, while eastern lowland gorillas can be found in Kahuzi-Biéga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A lack of tourism infrastructure in the case of Nigeria and Cameroon, and safety concerns in the DRC preclude the facilitation of safaris to see these subspecies, said Wilson.
Mountain gorillas and western lowland gorillas, on the other hand, are waiting to welcome travelers.
Mountain gorillas, as their name suggests, make their home in relatively high-altitude areas. In fact, mountain gorillas live at a higher altitude than all other great apes, aside from humans. They can be sighted in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
“One look into a gorilla’s eyes brings home the bond that exists between them and us,” said Wilson. “It also brings home the poignant fact that they are on the edge of extinction, and that your presence here contributes to ensuring their continued survival.”
Gorilla conservation through visitor permits and careful stewardship is one of Africa’s great conservation success stories.
And it is in large part because of such tourism that Fiorentinos and others are now expressing guarded optimism about the future for gorillas.
However, the momentum needs to be maintained in order to truly secure and safeguard their future.
“A gorilla trek is a bucket list thing,” said Fiorentinos. “And the preservation of these animals really requires that people keep taking these treks. It is through our dollars that these animals are going to continue to be preserved.”
Get involved to help save gorillas. Here are some of the things you can do in addition to a gorilla trek:
-Make a donation to support gorilla conservation.
-Host a World Gorilla Day Event at your company/school/neighborhood. Click here to sign up
-Visit an organization hosting a World Gorilla Day Event near you.
-Recycle your mobile device – recycling your cell or smartphone, tablet, or MP3 player will help reduce the demand for ore that is mined in some gorilla habitats, plus you’ll help raise funds for gorilla conservation. You can drop off your device at a participating location. Click here for instructions to send it in yourself and be sure to list World Gorilla Day as the beneficiary.
-Share a post on social media and tag #WorldGorillaDay. Click here for sample posts