Gorilla tourism is still going on in Rwanda and Uganda despite both countries currently going through the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. The two countries have reinstated nationwide lockdowns to control the spread of Covid-19 but have both left tourism open with international tourists still welcomed to visit.
However, unlike before, this time tourists are subjected to several virus-control guidelines before, during and after their safaris to ensure both their safety and that of wildlife.
The close genetic relationship between gorillas and humans makes them highly susceptible to human viruses which increases the risk of these great apes contracting Covid-19 if necessary measures are not taken. Gorillas share up to 98 percent of the human DNA and they are affected by most of human infections.
Measures taken to protect gorillas from Covid-19
- The first requirement for any tourist to visit Uganda or Rwanda for gorilla trekking and other safaris is to present a negative results from a Covid-19 test taken at least 72 hours before departure.
2. Visitors are also subjected to mandatory Covid-19 testing at arrival
3. Those who test positive for Covid-19 and those showing its symptoms are not allowed to visit the animals but rather isolated and quarantined immediately
4. Visitors who are cleared to proceed to their safari destinations are told to follow Covid-19-control guidelines which include wearing face masks, maintaining social distance, washing hands which are to be practised while inside and outside national parks
5. Tourists are given more briefing at the national park before visiting gorillas where they are told to maintain a minimum distance from the gorillas. Other regulations include not touching the animals, not spitting in the gorilla habitat and no littering.
5. Staff at national parks which include administrators, rangers, trackers and vets also follow the same measures in addition to frequent hand washing and sanitising their hands whether with or away from the animals
6. Vets, trackers and rangers carryout regular checkups on the animals to see if there are any that show any Covid-19 related symptoms for immediate help
7. To control poaching which escalated during the first lockdown last year, rangers carryout regular patrols to ensure there are no poachers or snares in the gorilla habitat
Importance of gorilla tourism to Rwanda and Uganda
Last year both Rwanda and Uganda lost huge amounts of tourism revenue especially from gorilla tourism when the industry was closed to tourists in an effort to control the spread of Coronavirus. Having learnt a big lesson, the two countries have this time left their tourism sectors open despite imposing a lockdown.
Tourism is the biggest foreign exchange earner to both Rwanda and Uganda and the bigger part of their tourism revenue comes from gorilla trekking safaris. A gorilla permit is sold at $1,500 and $700 per person in Rwanda and Uganda respectively more than any other tourist activity hence fetching the two countries millions of dollars annually.
Rwanda and Uganda gorilla safaris
Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are the only 3 countries in the world with the endangered mountain gorillas. But gorilla trekking is more pronounced in Rwanda and Uganda due to insecurity and poor infrastructure in the eastern DRC where Virunga National Park which protects Congo’s mountain gorillas is located. Mountain gorillas are protected within the famous Virunga Mountains, an area that straddle the borders of the 3 countries with 3 national parks and in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwest Uganda. Mountain gorilla parks within the Virunga Mountains include Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Virunga National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. Gorilla safaris are carried out in all these parks thoughout the year. Several gorilla groups have been habituated in these parks to make them get used to the presence of humans to facilitate tourism and strengthen their conservation.
Currently, the global population of mountain gorillas is about 1,063 individuals according to the gorilla census of 2018. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park protects the highest number of mountain gorillas with about 459, followed by Volcanoes National Park with about 350 gorillas, Virunga National Park has over 200 gorillas while Mgahinga has only one gorilla group which has about 20 individuals.
Success conservation story of mountain gorillas
Mountain gorillas are the only gorilla subspecies whose population has been increasing. This is due to the intensive conservation efforts undertaken by both governments and several conservation organisations. The current population of mountain gorillas has more than quadrupled in past four decades – they were estimated to be around 250 individuals in the 1970s. Big credit goes to American primatologist Dian Fossey who started the relentless work of gorilla protection and research in the Virunga Mountains in 1967 where she later set up the Karisoke Research Center. Fossey protected the critically endangered mountain gorillas from poachers and made the world get to know about the species through her book “Gorillas in the mist,” which also later featured a film under the same title. She was later murdered by poachers in the forest in 1985 while doing the work she loved most of protecting the gorillas. Fossey’s legacy has continued to live on and her work has been taken up by both government and organisations like the Dian Fossey Fund which monitor and protect gorillas in Rwanda and DR Congo.