Two Decades of Discovering Apes

Gorilla Tourism: Look, but don’t touch or get touched

tourist touched by mountain gorilla

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.)

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  • dhusic

    Gerry, I am glad that you posted this message of concern and wish there was a way to get the points you raise out to the masses who watched the YouTube video. As like countless others, I did watch the experience with some awe and pondered what it would be like to see these extraordinary animals in the wild (not necessarily in the camp; I had that experience with a rogue elephant in the Maasai Mara once). I even envied for a moment, my vet who is currently on a gorilla trek in Uganda. But I kept thinking about a different sort of risk than you note; these animals are wild and, as such, unpredictable and possibly dangerous. The person featured in the video might have been “lucky” to have such a close encounter, but he was also lucky that no harm came from it to him. We don’t know how the apes were impacted.

    You quote from the MGVP report that raises an important dilemma too seldom considered by the mega-fauna adoring public: “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.” I teach a course each spring entitled “The Impact of Technology on Diet and Disease”. We talk about the origins of disease – often through the wild animal/human interface. Students read pieces from Jared Diamond about the negative impacts of the domestication of animals on human health and from Laurie Garrett (“The Coming Plague”). But I hadn’t previously discussed this in the reverse direction with these students; that is, the risk we pose to the animal populations. I suppose if this was one of my conservation courses, I would have thought to do this. But now I will be sure to call attention to this in this human-focused course too!

    So how then, do we raise awareness of the dire need for for conservation in general and, in particular, protection of endangered species? Animals, especially ones that look and act like us or ones that appear too cute to resist, can tug at heartstrings in ways that scientific data cannot. As a plant scientist, I also know that other species, no matter how beautiful or critical in the ecological web of life, do not have the same sort of power to capture the imagination and interest of the masses in the way that certain large vertebrates do.

    I have a strong aversion to zoos, but many animal biologists claim that this is the only exposure to “wildlife” that many people have and thus, can be an important education and conservation tool. A few years ago in a Conservation Biology course, we had a rather heated discussion about the value of taxidermy animal displays in mega stores like Cabelas. (I am not opposed to hunting; just trophy hunting.) And while a trip to Kenya years ago was a childhood dream come true for me, I remember being disgusted by some of the guides/tour companies chasing after animals for their clients, disrupting the animals at rest or in the midst of a hunt just for the rude humans to get a closer look or a better picture — a trophy of a different sorts. [I was pleased that on the game drive on my recent trip to South Africa (a Christmas present for my son who also attended COP17), the guide had the utmost respect for the animals and started by saying that we were going into their territory and had to remember to respect that. No chasing but rather viewing with reverence in quiet, and often from a distance. No radio calls to other vehicles. No rude interruptions.]

    Ecotourism can be good for conservation, but too often caters to the elite, adventure-seeking people and doesn’t put habitat and wildlife protection as the top priority. Game preserves in Africa can be well-intended, but humans will be humans! I simply don’t have the answer to this one. As someone who dislikes the propaganda that PETA uses, I doubt that we want to start showing videos of animals dying of human-transmitted diseases as an awareness campaign strategy!

    I don’t know if you have heard of the play entitled “Tooth and Claw” by Pennsylvania playwright Michael Hollinger. If you ever get a chance to see it – do so. Set on the Galapagos Islands, the script is filled with environmental science and conservation biology (accurately described), and raises many complex questions including that of which species (including humans) are most important to protect. There is a wonderful debate about removing the “invasive” goats from the islands in order to save the Giant Tortoise from both the perspective of the scientists and the inhabitants of the islands who could describe all sorts of uses for goats, but no practical ones for the tortoise. They also point out that everything on the island was an “immigrant” including the people. The descriptions of natural selection, species gone extinct, and the tributes to Darwin were beautifully worded. The author weaves together themes of exploitation of ocean fisheries, poverty, extinction, culling populations, abortion, biodiversity, and the too often unheard voice of the people without power or money. Ah, but I digress.

    I must now go make a donation to MGVP!

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