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Virunga’s mountain gorilla population is growing. Can tourism help sustain it long-term?

By Molly Bergen on November 14, 2019   duration

10 Mountain Gorilla babies have been born in Virunga National Park just this year. (Photo by: Virunga National Park)
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Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) changed its name to Re:wild in 2021

Protecting the park for its Mountain Gorillas, Biodiversity and Local Communities

In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), on the slopes of an active volcano traversed by armed groups with shifting territories and alliances, a remarkable conservation success story is underway.

Last year, the Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) was “downlisted” from Critically Endangered to Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, making the subspecies the only great ape whose wild population is currently growing. In Virunga National Park, 10 gorilla infants have been born this year alone — which, given the park’s total gorilla population of about 300, is a huge deal.

“The increase in Mountain Gorilla numbers proves that conservation success is possible even in the most challenging of environments,” says Dirck Byler, the Great Ape Conservation Director at Global Wildlife Conservation.

So how is this possible? The answer is complicated, but tourism seems to be part of the solution.

Currently, Virunga provides around 50-60 local jobs in tourism, with another 500 jobs created indirectly by the park. “It’s so imperative that the communities are seeing profit from this, seeing their lives change in a tangible way,” says Laura Parker, who works in communications for Virunga. “Otherwise it just can’t work. The population has to buy in, and it can’t be at their expense.”

By law, 30 percent of tourism income in Virunga goes back to local communities, who work with the park to determine how they will spend it. One project built a water pipeline out of the park that made it easier for one community to access clean drinking water, for example. The park is also providing other community services, such as the installation of public streetlights, which have improved security and allow street vendors to keep their shops open later, boosting their incomes.

The Virunga Alliance, a partnership between the park, the private sector and civil society, is working to grow this number and better connect local people with employment and income-generating options that depend on maintaining the gorilla population and their forest home.

“We are trying to show people that not only is Virunga worth protecting for its biodiversity, but that the park is an asset of the local population,” Parker says.

A Difficult History

Created in 1925, Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest national park and the only protected area on Earth that is home to three taxa of great ape: Eastern Chimpanzees, Eastern Lowland Gorillas and — Virunga’s most famous residents — about one-third of all remaining Mountain Gorillas.

Mountain Gorilla in Virunga National Park The Mountain Gorilla in Virunga National Park. The subspecies is the only great ape whose wild population is currently growing. (Photo by Virunga National Park)

The region’s green mountains, tranquil lakes and mild weather seem like a recipe for a tourist’s paradise. But eastern DRC has been a turbulent place for decades: Although the last civil war technically ended in the early 2000s, dozens of armed groups still control competing territories, threatening the lives of locals and making international tourism a tougher sell.

Still, Virunga’s gorillas draw a few thousand visitors a year, making it the DRC’s top tourist destination. At its peak, the park brought in more than 4,800 visitors in 2017, many of who were likely inspired by the 2014 Netflix documentary “Virunga.” The number of foreign visitors traveling to Virunga may be smaller than Volcanoes National Park in nearby Rwanda, but those who choose the DRC have a big advantage: paying one-third the cost for gorilla trekking.

After a May 2018 incident in which two British tourists and a local guide were kidnapped and a ranger was murdered, Virunga closed for nearly a year in order to improve security conditions within the park.

“We were expecting people to cancel reservations,” Parker says. “Instead, a lot of people said ‘Let me know when you guys open back up’.”

300 Gorillas, 4 Million People

Since the park reopened in February of this year, tourist numbers have been slowly growing. Virunga is among the only parks in Africa that handles much of its tourism in-house, rather than relying on outside operators. The park strictly controls the amount of exposure the gorillas get to humans: all tourist groups are 10 people or fewer, each visit only lasts an hour, and visitors can’t remove their surgical masks in the gorillas’ presence (to minimize risk of disease transmission between the two species). Because Virunga has nine gorilla groups that are habituated (meaning unafraid of humans), each group is visited no more than once a day.

Virunga National Park Rangers Virunga National Park rangers walk the same distance as on patrol as the circumference of the Earth each year. (Photo by: Virunga National Park

Protecting all these animals from harm is a challenging job. Each year, Virunga’s rangers walk the same distance on patrol as the circumference of the Earth, keeping an eye out for human threats to our ape cousins. Poachers rarely target gorillas directly, but the animals often get caught in wire snares meant for smaller game, which can cause the apes to lose limbs or their lives. Habitat destruction is also a big threat, as the 4 million people living around the park struggle to find land to farm or forest to convert into charcoal, which is a vital fuel source for cooking.

“Decades of war and poverty have forced local people into survival mode,” Parker says. “As any of us would, they’ll do whatever they have to do to put food on the table, even if for some of them, that means joining an armed group.”

Encounters with these groups have made Virunga among the most dangerous parks on Earth to be a ranger; more than 180 rangers have been killed in the line of duty in the past 20 years.

Expanding Benefits to Nearby Communities

Parker sees Virunga as a “back door into peacebuilding.” She says the so-called rebel groups aren’t “trying to take over Kinshasa as such. Most are just trying to maintain control over certain resource-rich areas and favor recruiting local people for the job … but I think if given the choice, people will take a job over a gun.”

The downlisting in the Mountain Gorilla’s conservation status is a huge milestone for the conservation community, and is largely attributable to the hard work of the rangers. But while securing the gorilla population is a critical first step, involving local people is essential for long-term success. Getting their full buy-in is still a work in progress, but nearby Rwanda reveals the promise of what could be: Rwanda made $1.5 billion from gorilla tourism last year. The hope is that as Virunga provides more benefits for local people, fewer will join armed groups; then as the region gets safer, more tourists will come, and locals will have even more incentive to protect gorillas and Virunga’s other wildlife.

“If we can be successful in Virunga National Park, there is no reason why we can’t succeed in other equally difficult parks in Central Africa,” Byler says.

Parker acknowledges that bringing in Western tourists to visit a park where access can be difficult for the local population is an uncomfortable reality, but one the park is struggling to change.

“We’re not infallible and there are constant challenges, but we’re trying something that hasn’t been done yet,” she says. “And for us the only option is one that benefits the local wildlife and the local population.”

About the author

Molly Bergen

Since beginning her career as a zookeeper, Molly Bergen has spent more than 10 years telling stories for a range of environmental NGOs. Covering everything from turtle nest guardians in Cambodia to community forests in the Congo, she is particularly passionate about conservation projects that create a "win-win" for both species and local people.

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