Tourism Pays for Conservation...
Gabon's Gorilla Tourism is Temporarily Closed
Since the 13th of March 2020, the gorilla tourism project in Loango, Gabon has closed it doors to guests. An incredibly sad turn of events for all of us at See Wild Travels, our clients zealous to get a glimpse into "gorilla life", and of course...the gorillas and their team of dedicated researchers and tourism experts.
An Off-the-Beaten-Track Adventure Experienced by Few
One of the highlights of a visit to Loango Lodge: tours to trek Western Lowland Gorillas, is a special and unforgettable adventure that even some of the most well-travelled explorers can't claim to have added to their repertoire.
Gorilla Trekking Experience in Loango National Park, Gabon, in 2018
Most travellers who are lucky enough to have delved into the peaceful and secretive lives of gorillas have done so in countries such as Uganda & Rwanda, where many large groups of Mountain gorillas are habituated to human presence. In Gabon there is just one group of fully habituated gorillas & they reside in Loango National Park, where they are fundamental to research & tourism. A completely different species to their mountain dwelling cousins, these are Western Lowland Gorillas, who's habitat and social structure is not the same. Making the experience for tourists in Loango something rare and highly sought-after. More information about the differences between the two gorilla species and the impact it has on a typical tourist visit will be available in a new blog that is coming soon.
A typical group of Mountain Gorillas: many individuals, Close knit, and open habitat
A typical Group of Western Lowland Gorillas: less individuals, group spread out more, and often a closed, dense habitat where the gorillas regularly climb. On this occasion the gorillas are feeding in a Wamba tree & the group consisted of 12 individuals. Other times they feed on the ground.
Loango offers the most affordable Western Lowland Gorilla Trekking tours, with the Congo and Central African Republic being the only other countries who supply regular tours with a handful of habituated groups, in very remote areas.
Trekking Tours Protect Gorillas and Support Communities
One thing that does not differ between all of these gorilla trekking trips is the profound affect tourism has on the gorillas' protection.
In Rwanda, it has been reported that in 2018 they earned revenue worth USD19.2 million by selling 15,132 gorilla permits during the year.
This revenue not only gets fed back into the country through development and supporting local communities through jobs created by the tourism activities, but...it gives the local people a reason to value their gorillas and have great pride in protecting them for future generations.
In Gabon, the amount of revenue and tourism is not (yet) as great as in countries like Rwanda and, in reality, it is one of the great things about a trip to Gabon...you will be away from big tourist crowds.
That said, the same rules apply i.e. if a habitat and it's wildlife within are valuable then it is inevitable that they will both be protected, and in turn support local communities through jobs created to protect the park, welcome tourists, and partake in research activities.
Since the current Covid-19 pandemic erupted, great ape tourism bases worldwide have acted responsibly by closing their doors to all tourism.
At this point, it is essential to the future of all great ape species: gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans.
Gabon's Gorillas & Chimps are in Grave Danger from the Coronavirus
Although it is not yet known if great apes are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus which causes Covid-19 disease in humans), there is abundant scientific evidence that great apes are susceptible to infection with human respiratory pathogens. At this point, it is safest to assume that great apes are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Therefore temporarily stopping tourism is undoubtedly the right thing to do because a common cold can kill a gorilla or chimpanzee, so what will happen if the coronavirus enters into the wild population? It then has the potential to spread throughout it and in most circumstances, it is not possible to medically treat wild apes, and administering a vaccine is also virtually impossible.
In short, if one gorilla is exposed to the virus the he/she could spread it throughout the whole population, with potentially deadly consequences for the whole species and know way to stop it.
It has been estimated that Ebola wiped out a third of the world's Western Lowland Gorilla population back in the early 2000's, and even worse for Gabon, it was reported to have killed more than 90% of the gorillas in Minkébé Park in northern Gabon.
Being a critically endangered species, the Western Lowland Gorilla may not survive a novel disease spreading though the population.
The Decline in Tourism = Vulnerable Gorillas AND People
On the flip-side, gorillas who were previously habituated for research and tourism have suddenly lost their "value", making them vulnerable if they are left without protection.
Funding for park protection in African countries often comes from a mixture of park tourism and outside donors. Now tourism has ceased to operate and outside donors may need to reduce or stop their donations due to global recessions rendering a lack of financial support from their own donors.
Park protection not only keeps the parks safe but, it employs local people to do so and therefore supports local communities. Take this away and you have local communities in dire straits, struggling to put food on the table, and living within reach of a park full of wildlife which also has its value as food sources, and in some cases with monetary value for darker trades such Ivory, Chinese medicine, and the pet trade.
If these local communities are struggling to survive, it is hard to judge them if they decide to to hunt local animals to fed their families.
One Gorilla in Uganda Has Already Fallen Victim to Poachers
Already in Uganda, poachers have killed a 25-year-old male, Rafiki, following a rise in illegal activities as tourism dries up.
Rafiki went missing on June 1, and a search party found his mutilated body the following day. Rangers tracked a suspect to a nearby village, where he was allegedly found with bushmeat as well as snares, a spear, and bells to be strapped to the collars of hunting dogs. He admitted that he and three others had been hunting antelope in the park and that he killed Rafiki in self-defence after the animal attacked.
Though Rafiki was not killed for bushmeat, the incident followed warnings that the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying lockdowns could force people to poaching out of desperation. Especially in a country like Uganda where the main source of revenue from gorilla conservation is from the currently suspended ecotourism expeditions to see the gorillas in their natural habitat.
Temporary bans on gorilla tourism have not been made on a whim, they are complicated and under constant revision - it is a difficult issue.
What Does the Future Hold?
Seeing a wild gorilla in its own habitat has such a deep and meaningful affect on so many - in my humble opinion gorillas are too beautiful for this world! So lets protect them the best we can by doing the following:
Have patience and plan wisely - plan or research for a gorilla trekking tour in the future to support the tourism industry and keep those involved assured that it will come back once normality resumes. Include contingency plans in case the coronavirus prevents gorilla tourism for longer than expected, or if new outbreaks occur. https://www.seewildtravels.com/contact is the perfect place to direct all of your gorilla trekking questions.
Donate time and/or money - many projects need financial support now more than ever but, as the world recovers from the economical affects from the pandemic most people also need all the financial help they can muster. Raising awareness of the plight of gorillas and their habitats is perfect way to to support them & reach the support of others.
Follow the rules - when tourism reopens it will be imperative that the rules created to protect the gorillas are followed during visits. The rules from pre-closure of camps can be found here, additional measures such as use of hand sanitisers will likely be added before reopening:
Let's keep daydreaming of being with them again, and until then pass on our knowledge of how awesome they are!
Young Male Western Lowland Gorilla, Orema, under the watchful eye of his father, Silverback Kamaya. In Loango National Park, Gabon
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