How we can save the Virunga Gorillas

Without gorilla tourism, mountain gorillas might have gone extinct. The regions where mountain gorillas live are home to the densest human populations in Africa. Most of the people living in these areas are farmers, so land is critical to their livelihoods. However, the governments of Rwanda, Uganda, and DR Congo have kept the gorilla’s volcano habitat off-limits to agriculture in order to protect the gorillas, largely because the revenue gained through tourism outweighs the value of using the park land for other purposes.

Due to the genetic similarity between humans and mountain gorillas, trekkers should not go in for the activity if they are sick. Gorillas are susceptible to many of the same infectious diseases that affect people. Mountain gorillas are also immunologically naïve to some diseases, meaning they are particularly susceptible to certain human diseases because of their historic isolation from people. Research conducted by the Gorilla Doctors and other scientists has proven that mountain gorillas have died as a result of infections that originated in people. Infectious disease, after trauma, is the leading cause of death in mountain gorillas. The most common infection is respiratory disease, which can range from mild colds to severe pneumonia. To protect gorillas from such infectious diseases, anyone feeling sick or running a fever should not trek gorillas.

In order to reduce the risk of disease transmission and to avoid changing or disturbing the gorillas’ natural behavior, national park authorities should establish the rule of staying 7 meters or more from the gorillas at all times. The gorillas themselves, especially youngsters, don’t know the rules and may approach humans, but tourists should make the effort to back away and avoid touching the animal if possible. The 7-meter rule should be observed at all times, even when gorillas leave the national park and venture on to property owned by tourist lodges and camps.

One of the most effective ways to help mountain gorillas is to donate money to organizations working on the ground to conserve the species. Many organizations including MGVP have spent decades finding effective methods for protecting mountain gorillas, and most rely on grants and donations to fund their work. MGVP is the only organization providing direct life-saving medical care to mountain gorillas in the wild. Research has shown that the work of the Gorilla Doctors and the anti-poaching efforts of the park rangers and trackers are responsible for up to 40% of the growth of the human-habituated mountain gorilla population in the Virunga Massif over the last 10 years.

As you visit the park, engage also in other activities in addition to gorilla trekking. Most of the tourists, who visit the national parks where gorillas stay, spend a day or two trekking gorillas and then leave. However, all of the gorilla parks offer other amazing wilderness experiences. Like with gorilla trekking, the revenue earned through these activities more so can help to protect mountain gorilla habitat. For instance, you can climb the active Nyiragongo volcano in DR Congo, home to the world’s largest lava lake. Or, hike extinct volcanoes in Rwanda and Uganda, such as the snow-covered Mt. Karismibi or the fluted peaks of Mt. Sabyinyo. Both Rwanda and Uganda offer treks to see golden monkeys and in Rwanda you may also visit the gravesite and former research station of Dian Fossey.

Supporting the local businesses and community projects around the national parks is also vital to ensure the preservation of gorilla habitat and the conservation of mountain gorillas. For example tourists can pay a visit to Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village near Volcanoes National Park, which employs former poachers as cultural interpreters and performers. The more that local people share in tourism revenue and benefit from nonprofit and community efforts in the area, the more they are likely to protect the mountain gorillas. Tourists can also help by buying food from local restaurants, shops, and other businesses, or by making contributions to community projects around the park.

Avoid buying products made out of wild animal. Poachers mostly set snares to catch small antelopes to bring home for food but occasionally larger animals such as buffalo or elephants may be targeted also including Gorillas that are often caught in poachers’ snares set for other animals. More so, poachers’ presence in the forest disturbs the environment and increases the risk of zoonotic disease transmission. Whereas the main purpose of poaching is to obtain bush meat, wild animal skins, bones, and ivory may be used in crafts and other items sold to tourists. While mountain gorillas are very rarely targeted by poachers, other animals living in the national parks where gorillas live are actively hunted down.

Anyone can make a difference for the gorillas by spreading the word about mountain gorilla conservation. This is through telling friends, family and colleagues about the mountain gorillas and the efforts being made to save them. Much as mountain gorillas are critically endangered, their story is a positive one! Mountain gorillas are the only subspecies of non-human great ape growing in number. Fewer than 250 animals were counted in the mid-80s when Dian Fossey was researching the gorillas but today the population numbers nearly 800 animals. This species has a fighting chance for survival if we continue to work to address conservation challenges.

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