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Like any primates, gorillas are large animals with history that is worth exploring. Gorilla tourism began from the mid 1900’s in the thick tropical rain forests of Africa to look for these charismatic wild apes and it is during that time that mountain gorillas became popular to most adventure tourists in the world. About a hundred years back, the large primates had a bit of history with several people and groups working together to ensure their thriving in the forests of Africa. In 1902, the German explorer Captain Robert Von Beringe learnt about these intelligent wild creatures along the ridges of the Virunga Massifs and hence the name Gorilla Gorilla Beringei by Matshie in 1903. In 1925, Carl Akeley the prominent American conservationist convinced his Majesty Albert the King of Belgium to establish Albert National Park that featured as the ancient protected area in African continent and its boundary was expanded in 1929. George Schaller an American naturalist in 1959 also carried out research on the endangered mountain gorillas of Albert Conservation Area.

In 1960’s, just after independence, of Belgium Congo the now Zaire, the Volcanoes National Park was sub divided into two parts and that the Volcanoes Conservation Area in Rwanda and the Virunga National Park in DR Congo. In 1967, the famous zoologist Dian Fossey started her first long term research on the endangered mountain gorillas around the Volcanoes National Park and it succeeded in familiarizing the apes to human presence. By 1973, an office known as the Rwanda Office of Tourism and National Park Development was established and began offering Rwanda new laws governing the protected areas and hunting of wildlife.

Between 1970 and 1980, the history of the endangered apes was concerned with curbing down the issue of poaching, how to control the spread of traps and wire snares and the way of conserving the endangered gorillas. This was particularly concerned with the killing of the Volcanoes National Park prime silverback Digit in 1978 and several five gorillas in the shortest time that marked the worst experience ever and that enabled to raise an international concern about the thriving of these large primates. To day, there a tomb of digit and tourists visit it at the old Karisoke Center just next to the tomb of Dian Fossey. The first trial to connect gorilla protection and tourism started in Kahuzi Biega National Park in 1973. The protected area was initially gazetted in 1970 and in 1975 it was further widened to 6000 square kilometers. In 1973, the ancient gorilla tourism was initiated though after was suspended as research had not been adequately conducted and the experience over the implications of humans-gorilla contact and the gorilla rules and regulations were not that clear.

The Mountain Gorilla Project in 1979 was milestone in gorilla conservation history. It follows the convention between Rwanda government and a consortium made by private numerous organizations that are interested in nature conservation especially the African wildlife Leadership Foundation which is currently the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), WWF, Fauna and Flora Preservation Society (FFPS). The idea was to introduce gorilla tourism and education in addition to anti poaching attempts as main engine to achieve the better gorilla protection. The ability to create tourism based jobs and revenues could change the local and national politics attitudes in favor of these endangered species in the wild. Two gorilla families around Karisoke-Group 11 and 13 were chosen to initiate habituation in that they would be opened for tourism purposes. Other groups were also considered for the bad temper of some gorillas in regards to humans or for their distance from the beginning point of the trekking. Especially group 11 had a very calm silverback gorilla known as Stilgar and at the time had 4 infants. The first experiential trekking began in October 1979 with some locals from Kigali. The first non local visitors to come were mainly the Europeans from trans-Africa overlanders in November 1979.

The first trekking was restricted to only six tourists per gorilla group and the time to be with the apes was restricted to one hour. At that period, the trekking fee was at $20 per person compared to the current figures in Rwanda $1500 per person, $600 in Uganda and $400 in DR Congo. There were gorilla trekking rules and regulations like it is to date that spelt mainly the dos and don’ts for visitors while they are with gorillas in the wild. The increase in tourist visit to Volcanoes National Park then resulted to enhanced accommodation and lodging facilities in Ruhengeri and several employment opportunities as patrolling guards and park guides was created for the people.

On 27th October 1985, Dian Fossey was mysteriously killed in her cabin at Karisoke Research Center. She was buried at the Karisoke in a cemetery that she had created for gorillas and next to her beloved Digit tomb. After her death, counting of endangered mountain gorillas started in 1989 and there were about 324 individuals in the Virunga Conservation Area and 320 in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park totaling to 644 in the whole world compared to the current figure of about 880 gorillas.

In 1992 the male silverback gorilla known as Mrithi that belonged to group 13 was also killed by poachers. In 1994 the civil unrest in Rwanda broke out and resulted to loss of about 18 to 22 gorillas in the course of fighting while also the tragic Rwandan genocide in the same year also stopped gorilla trekking adventures. Only in 1990 Volcanoes Protected Area was re-opened for trekking purposes by the Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN). During this period, gorilla tourism was at $250 and later increased up to $360 in 2006/2007 further went to $500.

On October 17th 2002, Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund hosted the 100th anniversary of identification discovery of endangered gorillas in Rwanda and in 2004 Keesling won a lifetime achievement award from the British Airways for worldwide conservation attempts to protect gorillas. In 2012, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda had only 9 gorilla groups that were set for gorilla trekking and from June first, permits were sold at $750. Though the gorilla adventure has been referred as for luxury travelers, the amount is worth as it is one way of supporting investment in tourism sector as well as ensuring protection of these critically endangered primates in the wild.


Gorilla Tourism Today

The long term growth of gorilla tourism since its inception in early 1970’s is attributed to conservation efforts of rangers and support of the local communities living around gorilla protected areas who have for long been the custodians.

The growth is largely reflected in the increase in tourists visiting gorilla national parks for gorilla trekking while on a safari.  There are 1000 mountain gorillas in the wild.  Half of their numbers about 400 live in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda while the rest are scattered in the Virunga Conservation Area including Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The only habitats left on earth for mountain gorillas.

The first gorilla conservation efforts by Dian Fossey who formed Karisoke research center in 1960’s inspired the birth of mountain gorilla tourism project in 1970’s. At the time gorilla numbers were below 500.

Gorillas suffered threats of extinction due to habitat loss, poaching, conflicts and civil wars and human diseases as a result of less conservation efforts and unregulated tourist visits to gorillas and encroachment. This enforced national governments of Rwanda, Uganda and DRC in partnership with international gorilla conservation organizations to put in place strict measures that would protect and save gorillas and their natural habitats. Gorillas were listed as critically endangered in the IUCN Red data book. Gorilla trekking rules and regulations were developed to limit the number of tourists visiting gorillas per. Only 8 tourists in Rwanda and Uganda and 4 in DRC are allowed to trek one habituated group of gorillas for one hour per day. Sick tourists are not allowed to see gorillas and those who are not able must also observe or photography gorillas at a distance of 7 meters (21 feet). Gorilla authorities believe in the benefit the rules have towards educating and tourists have learnt to respect gorilla tourism. For example it has been a vital key to minimizing human disruption of gorilla natural behavior and disease transmission.

Because of the high value placed on gorillas with a potential for tourism development, it requires tourists to pay expensively when booking a gorilla permit while on a safari. Many tourists are willing to take a gorilla friendly pledge, pay higher fees or double trek gorillas as well as to appreciate the diversity and natural beauty of gorilla parks and local cultures in Rwanda, Uganda and DRC.

With a lot of gorilla trekking safaris increasingly becoming popular, huge chunks revenues earned annually straight from gorilla tourism. Therefore conservation of gorillas is linked to economic development of local communities living around the gorilla parks. There’s a high population density of local people and their lives still depend on natural resources.