Gorilla Tourism: Look, but don’t touch or get touched
Wild mountain gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest investigate and touch tourist John J. King II in a video still. Still photo via video from Jonathan Rossouw.
Few experiences tug on emotional heartstrings like experiencing wildlife, especially what conservationists like to call C.M.V.s – Charismatic Mega Vertebrates – things like giant pandas, elephants, tigers, and great apes, up close and personal. Great apes in particular present a conundrum because they are often as curious about experiencing us as we them.
A week ago an engaging video clip popped up on the internet and began its viral ascendency to the cyber-summits. A link to the video has littered my email in-box no less than 30 times – and I thank all those who are helping keep me and Skye informed on everything happening on great apes – but after watching the clip a few times I began getting that oddly uneasy feeling, ‘This might be good for gorilla tourism, but ultimately this can’t be good for gorillas.’
(A short version of the interaction has circulated the internet - Watch the longer produced version on youtube here.)
No longer had that thought settled in to stay when I read a similar sentiment, “Frankly I’m more worried about the danger to gorillas,” Those are the words of former director of the Mountain Gorilla Project in Rwanda Craig Sholley (now of the African Wildlife Foundation.) I first met Craig in the early 90′s in the Virungas Mountains, the other final mountainous sanctuary for mountain gorillas. Craig is one a rare handful of folks that has been close to mountain gorilla survival issues for most of the past couple decades. His words have perspective, they are worth considering.
Pressure on the gorillas is coming from multiple directions not just tourism. As both the Virungas and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest are enclosed by farm fields it has become increasingly common for mountain gorillas to wander into old range areas now converted to human agriculture. As encounters increase disease and outright hostility towards the animals has the potential of escalating.
Mountain gorilla numbers hover around 800 (an exact number will come in 2012 from the recently completed census), regardless of their exactness they will reveal what we already know – mountain gorillas are the most endangered great ape on Earth and a single disease or regional conflict could tip them towards extinction.
In March 2011 a report from a mixed consortium of researchers, some representing gorilla groups from Africa and the United States, including the Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project (MGVP), reported in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, a publication of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
The genetic relatedness of mountain gorillas and humans has led to concerns about interspecies transmission of infectious agents. Human-to-gorilla transmission may explain human metapneumovirus in 2 wild mountain gorillas that died during a respiratory disease outbreak in Rwanda in 2009. Surveillance is needed to ensure survival of these critically endangered animals.
The report concludes, “Although human proximity to mountain gorillas is essential for their conservation, also crucial is minimizing the risk for human-to–great ape transmission of respiratory pathogens.
The research was based on two gorillas both were members of the Hirwa group living in Rwanda. From the MGVP website article, Mountain Gorilla Deaths Linked to Human Virus “In 2008 and 2009, this group experienced outbreaks of respiratory disease, with various amounts of coughing, eye and nose discharge, and lethargy. In the 2009 outbreak, the Hirwa group consisted of 12 animals: one adult male, six adult females, three juveniles and two infants. All but one were sick. Two died: an adult female and a newborn infant.”
In an email MGVP Communications Officer Molly Feltner wrote, ” MGVP works with the park authorities to set up measures to help prevent the spread of disease and we always advocate that all visitors stay 7 meters [25 feet] or more away from the gorillas. Gorillas don’t know the rules and may come closer, but humans should make the effort to back away.”
We are constantly amazed by the actions of animals – especially when they “act like us.” John J. King II had an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience, at any price. I’m delighted for him, but if it inspires more gorilla tourists to show up in Uganda and Rwanda with this video playing in their subconscious it could be mountain gorillas that pay the ultimate price.
Craig’s final thought articulates my sentiments exactly:
“The introduction of human diseases into a gorilla population could be population threatening,… And considering that half of the world’s gorillas live in this one forest, it could be a disaster.”
(If you would like to read additional thoughts on the ‘Gorilla touching’ concern: Wild Gorillas Groom U.S. Tourist in Uganda - “Gentle” encounter should still remain extremely rare, experts warn.)