Endangered Gorillas, Ugandan Village Learn to Coexist

mountain gorillasYears of protecting the mountain gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwest Uganda nearly unraveled four years ago when gorillas began to destroy farm crops outside the reserve. 

Villagers in Nkuringo, located outside the Bwindi boundary, quickly turned against the endangered species.

"We were alarmed that members of the community would start killing gorillas," said Charles Tumwesigye, a park manager, in an interview at the World Wilderness Congress last month in Mérida, Mexico. "It was very, very serious. We needed to do something."

Villagers and wildlife officials have since partnered to ensure that the community receives economic benefits for helping to conserve Bwindi's mountain gorillas. The agreement has furthered efforts to ensure the apes' safety and could serve as a model for protecting gorillas across central Africa.

Bwindi was previously considered among the most secure reserves for the endangered gorilla. Some 320 individuals, about half of the wild global population, live there. The rest are scattered across Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda.

"The threats facing gorillas vary across this range because some African cultures regard gorillas as just another animal that can be hunted for bush meat, some regard its meat as having medicinal or magical properties, whereas others find the idea of eating gorillas offensive," said Ian Redmond, a tropical field biologist and ambassador of the ongoing United Nations-designated Year of the Gorilla.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rebel fighters, thousands of refugees, and slum residents surround Virunga National Park, home to an estimated 81 mountain gorillas. The humanitarian crisis has led to a growing dependency on charcoal for fuel, emboldening illegal loggers to enter the reserve, remove gorilla habitat, and kill apes that stand in their way.

In Rwanda and Uganda, gorilla populations are slowly on the rise due in large part to conservation programs funded by tourists who pay to see the great apes.

Bwindi officials began developing sightseeing programs in 2003. Rangers then started to follow a group of gorillas so that the animals would become comfortable around humans. But a scabies outbreak among the apes forced the park to suspend tourism.

As they became accustomed to seeing people, a group of gorillas started to wander outside the park, eating bananas grown on community farms. "That's when the problem started," Tumwesigye said.

Frustrated with the stalled tourism effort and continued gorilla raids, the village agreed to sell the Uganda Wildlife Authority the 12 kilometers of community land where the gorillas had been foraging. The land became a buffer zone, where wildlife officials and the community worked together to develop crops that the gorillas would not find as appetizing, such as lemon grass, wheat, tea, and the medicinal crop Artemisia.

The outer boundary of the buffer zone was planted with Mauritius, a thick, thorny hedge that is not considered to be invasive. Since Mauritius was planted in 2008, the number of gorilla incidents has declined from 60 in 2007 to less than 10 last year.

Meanwhile, wildlife officials reopened the park to tourism. The community, with the support of an outside investor, opened its first tourism lodge last year. The 16-visitor facility employs 25 people, and associated tourism services have provided US$102,630 of revenue to the 2,000-person community in the past year.

"This is a poverty-stricken village. Within two years the infrastructure built because of tourism has been amazing," Tumwesigye said. "Two years down the road it will be a modern village."

The funding has so far been re-invested to purchase pigs, cows, and beehives. Some community members remain disappointed that the program is not providing direct cash payments, but the majority are more supportive of the gorilla conservation efforts, Tumwesigye said.

"Now, if someone would say to get rid of the park, [villagers] would say they're crazy," he said.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

For permission to republish this article, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.