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Threats to gorilla trekking

How Dian Fossey transformed mountain gorillas into one of the best tourist attractions in the world

Mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, D.R Congo and Uganda are thriving in the wild with their population steadily growing each year but this success is largely owed to the brave contribution of American primatologist Dian Fossey. After more than 3 decades of her demise, Fossey’s legacy lives on at Karisoke Research Center in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda where researchers are actively working to protect the gorillas.

Dian Fossey first encountered mountain gorillas in 1967 in the mist of the Virunga Mountains where she had gone to simply study gorilla behavior and their habitat. But after falling in love with these gentle giants and realizing the deadly threats they were facing especially from poachers, she became their fierce advocate and protector as well. Due to the danger facing gorillas she had observed, Fossey predicted that the species would go extinct within the next two or three decades. According to the census conducted shortly after Fossey’s arrival in 1967, there were only 240 mountain gorillas left in the Virunga Mountains.

Upon her arrival in the Virunga Mountains, Fossey first set up a pair of makeshift tents at Karisoke Research Center, which derives its name from the two volcanic peaks on either sides, Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke. She became the first person to habituate mountain gorillas by spending her best part of 18 years in the wild living with and observing these great apes. In the process, gorillas started getting used to the presence of humans paving way for gorilla tourism which is today fetching millions of dollars to Rwanda, Uganda and D.R Congo through tourism revenue.

In 1970, National Geographic Magazine published Fossey’s cover story in which she wrote that she wasn’t satisfied with the textbook approach to animal studies which instructed to observe gorillas from a distance. “I felt that the gorillas would be doubly suspicious of any alien object that only sat and stared. Instead, she “tried to elicit their confidence and curiosity by acting like gorillas,” she wrote. She tried to imitate their feeding, grooming and vocalizations by pretending to chew on wild plants and thumping her chest, which symbolizes power and strength among gorillas.

Both authorities and conservation organizations have adopted Fossey’s work of protecting mountain gorillas which has the population of the subspecies significantly increase to about 1,063 individuals. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund which runs the Karisoke Research Center has dedicated a team of rangers and trackers who help to monitor and protect mountain gorillas in Rwanda as well as Grauer’s gorillas in eastern D.R Congo.

Protecting gorillas through gorilla safaris

All the funds used by authorities to protect mountain gorillas are obtained from gorilla safaris. About 50% of the revenue got from gorilla trekking trips is sent to parks where the gorillas to facilitate their protection through facilitating rangers, trackers, researchers and vets to regularly monitor them. Another small portion of the revenue is also used to support the communities living around gorilla habitats as one of the ways to empower them and stopping them from poaching.

What does it take to trek mountain gorillas?

Trekking mountain gorillas has been described as one of the best wildlife experiences in the wild and this makes it worthy to undertaken all the costs involved to see these animals. The cost of trekking mountain gorillas differs from one country to another. Rwanda sells its gorilla permit at $1,500 per person while Uganda sells it at $700 per person and DR Congo at $400 per person. However, Rwanda and Uganda are currently the two most ideal destination for mountain gorilla trekking due to security, developed infrastructure and better wildlife experiences.