By Cinthia Pacheco
This is the second of two posts on the Virungas region of East Africa. What tourism options are available in the Virungas region? And is there a way to observe the infamous mountain gorilla without damaging its survival?
Ecotourists interested in the Virungas region can visit go2africa, one of the biggest African tourism websites. It offers intensive gorilla trekking with mandatory gorilla permits and certain rules, e.g. no flash photography or children under 15 because they might transmit diseases to the gorillas. One hour is allowed with the gorillas and at a distance of no closer than 7 meters. In certain restrictive circumstances, like border closures, security changes, or gorillas going out of range, the park ranger can deny your gorilla encounter, even after purchasing a gorilla permit.
The travel service highlights its environmental and social responsibility (including its adoption of a blind rhino, Max – aww). It also encourages connecting with their Africa experts and spending time on their forums.
Volcanoes Safaris offers eco-lodges and emphasizes the “debate on minimizing the environmental impact of rich travellers on poor countries.” The company displays detailed information on its eco-lodges’ low-flush and eco-san dry toilets, bush showers, and solar panel lighting.
Although both these companies seem to show initiative to protect the fragility of the Virungas region, Volcanoes Safaris really buckles down on conservation efforts:
“As the leading gorilla safari company, Volcanoes has demonstrated our commitment to working for their survival by being the only safari company to sign the Kinshasa Declaration on Saving the Great Apes.”
This company shows its commitment to a long-term plan to protect the Virungas region and its wildlife.
Tourism and community working together
While digging into all the tourism information available on the Virungas region, I couldn’t help but notice community projects ubiquitous across websites on the mountain gorilla. The multitude of organizations involved is astounding, and many understand that the local community impacts the gorillas’ well-being.
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund und has people programs focusing on ecosystem health, community development, and education. In order for the tourism sector to thrive, the local community must be stable, and these small-scale sustainable development programs are “designed to help local people work toward economic independence, reducing reliance on irreplaceable natural resources.”
This, in turn, benefits the well-being of the Virungas region and thus the mountain gorilla.
There also have been plans to regulate tourism, including the Virunga Massif Tourism Plan, which
“aims to provide the framework for tourism development in the region that allows for controlled development, which does not generate any negative environmental or socio-cultural impact and which will be used as a means for environmental and cultural conservation.”
Another collaboration worth noting is The Great Virunga Transboundary Collaboration, which includes the countries surrounding the Virungas region: Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Uganda. Through this project said countries have pooled in their energy to co-ordinate level regulations on “environmental management, law enforcement, gorilla census and tourism.”
Conclusion – Can ecotourism and gorillas coexist?
The Karisoke Center continues to advance its research goals and conservation objectives, and is currently in the process of conducting a new study, Environmental Economics Research, putting special attention on the impact of human activity on the Virungas region, namely tourist behaviour toward conservation efforts.
The scientists who work with these animals know that, in general, gorillas are peaceful and gentle. However, a study by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund on the direct impact of safari tours trekking in on the Virunga gorillas found that,
“The gorillas were more aggressive and exhibited a number of stress-related behaviours during the one-hour tourist visits … This study has provided the park management authorities the scientific information needed to guide sustainable long-term management of the gorillas in the face of increased economic pressure to include more gorilla groups in the tourism program and to increase the number of visitors and visits per day to each group.”
I believe that with careful regulations, controlled and conscious ecotourism – real ecotourism – can aid the gorillas of the Virungas region. Money from tourism helps revive the local economy and, in turn, helps these gorillas.
Being one of our closest the living primates, I think it is essential for us to step up and ensure their safety and survival.