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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Could gorilla ecotourism be doing more harm than good?

Evaluating conservation success has to be one of the biggest issues in conservation today. At least in dubious cases like these. From a conservation biology perspective, gorillas are flagship species, charismatic megafauna, used to promote conservation of an area due to their widespread appeal. Conserving them is not the goal per se, saving the ecosystem they inhabit is (of course they are part of that ecosystem and thus should prosper in the process). In many places, like the Virungas, if it wern't for gorilla ecotourism there is a good chance there would be no forest there at all today (and certainly no gorillas).
But now that gorillas have saved these areas and now that we know that ecotourism is affecting them, possibly stressing them and that they are probably getting disease from us, should we really continue?
There are other possibilities I can think of. It might not work everywhere, but at least in the Western gorilla range where there are naturally occur swampy clearings called "bais", it seems to work quite well. That is, the construction of platforms ("miradors") where tourists can sit and wait for gorillas to come to the bai to feed. The tourists are separated from the gorillas as they watch them from above, decreasing stress on the groups, avoiding the lengthy and costly habituation phase (which can take 5 years or more to achieve) and avoiding disease transmission (when hygiene and waste disposal rules are followed). One such example is Mbeli Bai in the Republic of Congo. It might not be up close and personal with gorillas but I think its a good compromise. - MA

From the East African via the Great Ape Trust Facebook page
Future of mountain gorilla trips in danger
By Paul Redfern

A stark choice faces Uganda and Rwanda over the future of ecotourist trips to visit the rare mountain gorillas, following a new report which warns that close encounters with humans are having an alarming effect on their behaviour.

The study in the American Journal of Primatology notes that tourists who come closer than 18 metres to the gorillas not only potentially threaten their health but also affect how the primates feed and interact with each other.

The mountain gorilla is on the verge of extinction, with less than 700 of these species found in the wild. Their very last redoubt is in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park of southwest Uganda, and in the mists of the Virunga Mountains of the Great Lakes.

The Virunga sanctuaries are Mgahinga Gorilla (Uganda), Volcano (Rwanda) and Virunga (Congo) National Parks. Here, the mountain gorilla already faces the threats of habitat loss, pressures of men at war, poaching for the bushmeat trade and the emergence of new terrifying diseases like Ebola.

Now ecotourism trips to the sanctuaries have been added to the list.

The problem however is twofold. First, gorilla tourism brings in huge amounts of money. Uganda alone benefits to the tune of $496,667.94 a month from the sale of permit fees, aside from the money spent by tourists on hotels, lodges, travel and souvenirs.

On the other hand, foreign visitors have encouraged regional governments to invest in conservation. Their presence coupled with that of researchers has also acted as a strong deterrent to poachers.

One researcher, Michelle Klailova of Stirling University in the UK readily acknowledged that insisting that tourists stayed much farther away from the gorillas would make them less popular.

Even viewing the gorillas from more than 10 metres in Bwindi for example, would be almost impossible.

But the report says that the long-term consequence of the gorillas becoming over stressed could make them more aggressive and affect family groups wellbeing.

One recommendation is that tourists be forced to wear face masks near the gorillas in order to block any transmission of human diseases.

But critics warn such a proposal would be unpopular.“The prospect of wearing masks all the time while only being allowed distant glimpses of animals could have a detrimental impact on gorilla-watching holidays,” wrote Robin McKie, the Observer’s science editor.

Uganda boasts half the entire mountain gorilla population and is the most popular destination for gorilla tourism. The country’s two centres of mountain gorilla conservation — Mgahinga and Bwindi were gazetted as gorilla sanctuaries by the Uganda government in 1991.

Klailova M, Hodgkinson C, Lee PC (2010) Behavioral responses of one western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) group at Bai Hokou, Central African Republic, to tourists, researchers and trackers. American Journal of Primatology DOI: 10.1002/ajp.20829

Gorilla tourism, widely perceived as a lucrative industry, is propelled by strong market demand with programs in five countries and for three of four gorilla subspecies. Human presence may negatively affect wild gorillas, potentially lowering immunity and increasing the likelihood of acquiring human-borne disease. Yet, behavioral impacts of humans on wild gorilla behavior remain largely unexplored, particularly for western lowland gorillas. We evaluate the impact of tourist presence, human observer numbers (tourists, trackers, and researchers), and human observer distance on the behavior of one habituated gorilla group at Bai Hokou, Central African Republic. Behavioral data were collected for more than 12 months from January 2007. Of silverback aggressive events, 39% (N=229) were human directed, but 65% were low-level soft barks. Adult females, and one in particular, were responsible for the highest number of aggressive events toward humans. Humans maintained closer proximity to the silverback when tourists were present, although tourist numbers had no significant impact on overall group activity budgets or rates of human-directed aggression. However, as research team size increased, group feeding rates decreased. Close observer-silverback distance correlated with a decrease in his feeding rates and an increase in human monitoring. He directed less aggression toward observers at distances >10 m, although observers spent 48.5% of time between 6 and 10 m of the silverback. We discuss gorilla personality as a factor in human-directed aggression. We explore whether the current 7 m distance limit governing gorilla tourism, based on disease transmission risks, is sufficient considering the potential behavioral stressor of close human presence. We recommend increasing minimum observation distance to >10 m where possible, decreasing observer group sizes, particularly after a visit consisting of maximum numbers and restricting tourist access to 1 visit/day.

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