By Cinthia Pacheco
This is the first of two posts on the Virungas region of East Africa, by some called the ‘darkest Africa.’ In this first post, we will look at the history of African region and, in the second, the specific ecotourist options that exist there.
The mountain gorillas of the Virungas
The Virungas stretch along the northern border of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Uganda. This dense jungle is home to a community of mountain gorillas, “the rarest of subspecies.”
“There are roughly 720 mountain gorillas left on Earth; half live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the other half 15 miles south in the Virunga Mountains.”
Why are these gorillas different from others? Their low-fruit diet makes them less likely to move in a large range throughout the forest and the rugged terrain creates clear visibility. Further, because they have not been traditionally hunted for food by humans, they are not alarmed by tourists and are more easily observable.
The history of the Virungas and nearby regions is indeed dark, with a heavy past of civil war, disease, and poaching. It began in the 1960s, when primatology and anthropology were ripe: the perfect conditions to study gorillas. And thus, the Karisoke Research Center was founded by Dian Fossey with a mission to research developmental behaviour and ecology in conjunction with the conservation of these mountain gorillas.
The researchers captured data from different regions of the Virungas, including the Virungas National Park and Volcanoes National Park. They studied everything about the gorilla’s lives and it soon became evident that this information could be revolutionary when studied over long periods of time.
During the 1970s, anthropology was blooming with gorilla research, but there were very little conservation efforts in motion. The gorilla population declined in the Virungas between 1958 and 1973 because of habit loss linked to human settlement and cultivation of cash crops. Also, tourism played a part in gorilla poaching and hunting.
“In the mid 1970s, a gruesome trophy trade in gorilla heads and skulls surfaced in Rwanda, with the main market being foreign residents and visitors.”
It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s that gorilla-based tourism began to thrive, starting in Rwanda. Conservation and education were also being implemented at this time.
However, in October 1990, war broke out in Rwanda and, as a result, the Virungas were no longer considered tourist-friendly for a long time. Again in April 1994, instability hit Rwanda with war and genocide and the national parks in the Virungas became a base for rebels. Poaching activities mounted again and the survival of the gorillas was at stake.
Since then, there have been time gaps when the Virungas have been restricted to tourists. Today, tourists are advised to avoid certain parts of Congo and Rwanda, but gorilla tours and trekking in the national parks are slowly gaining popularity.
So, does tourism play a critical role in the protection of these beautiful animals? Or will it only bring more destruction to the area?
In the next post, I will look at the different existing ecotourism companies in the Virungas and whether they are really there to watch out for the gorillas – or just their own bank accounts.