Gorilla Tourism - a Social Perspective

Souvenir shop for gorilla tourists (© Rolf Brunner)

Gorilla tourism and conservation can­not be sustained if it is not supported by fringe communities around the parks. Gorilla ecotourism areas are experiencing intensification of land use and tourism/habituation related conflicts, all of which could threaten the existence of this critically endangered population of the great apes. In Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP), mountain gorilla habituation, coupled with reduced food inside the park and increased availability of herbaceous foods outside the park, has increased gorilla foraging on private land where they raid crops and deprive the affected people of their right of free access to their land and property.

Additionally, patterns of traditional land use in fringe areas of BINP have changed due to creation of physical infrastructure resulting in landscape fragmentation and increased influx of people who hope to benefit economically from tourism, enhancing human-gorilla interactions at park-community interfaces and so fuelling human-gorilla conflicts.

In September, 2012, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) sanctioned a study on the "assessment of the impacts of mountain gorilla habituation and tourism on their sustainable conservation". One of the objectives of the assignment was to generate data to be used to address the ecological and anthropogenic conflict drivers that threaten sustainability of gorilla habituation for tourism development and conservation around BINP, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (MGNP) in Uganda and Volcanoes National Park (VNP) in Rwanda. To achieve this objective, community perspectives (likes and dislikes) regarding gorillas and tourism were analysed through open discussions. Responses from communities about their perspectives about gorillas and tourism are indicated in the table.

Although the dislikes about gorillas and visitors are fairly significant, it is clear that communities do not hate gorillas or tourism activity per se. However, community members are aggrieved, angered and frustrated by the following:

  • tracking gorillas on community land when they are not benefiting from the tourism activity,
  • continued loss of land and crops to gorillas,
  • harsh treatment for 'simple' offences from park authorities,
  • corruption and inequitable distribution of benefits from gorilla tourism (Revenue Sharing and Gorilla Levy Funds),
  • ineffective interventions in community problems,
  • indifferent response by park authorities to communities' core needs.

Communities feel they are not recognized for the role they play not only in conservation but also giving a helping hand in maintaining roads or rescuing tourists among others. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that park authorities seem to misinterpret the core needs of communities.

Gorillas and other animals destroy our crops and entire survival. But the park does not even show sympathy. Tourists get stuck and they encourage us to go and help. But some of these wardens will not even take a woman in labour pains to hospital ...
Nkuringo, January 2013

The most sensitive challenge though is the community wildlife conflict un­derpinned by the local community's unmet economic expectations from gorilla tourism, coupled with ineffective collaborative mechanisms (that do not adequately provide inclusiveness in negotiation and equitable sharing of costs and benefits of gorilla tourism and conservation) and failure to address crop raiding and gorilla foraging outside the protected areas. Accordingly, there is increased animosity between park management and the local people who suffer losses, amidst clear knowledge of the economic returns that gorillas fetch, and yet they have to be punished for simple offences:

… their animals destroy entire gardens for a whole season but when our goat, just goats, even if it is one, are caught, they are immediately arrested. Sometimes these rangers act so irrationally. Here we cannot be sure of our life or wellbeing. Any time the park staff will come to your home claiming that you have illegal timber. Even when we quarrel over simple social issues, they will implicate you and threaten to arrest you.

This has rendered mountain gorillas more vulnerable as expressed through emotion-driven killings, poaching and deliberate habitat destruction. Notably, mountain gorillas being flagship spe­cies stand out as targets and victims of violence (direct and indirect) as ransom from the disgruntled local people around park/community interface. Affected local people direct their vengeance at gorillas or their habitat to seek justice, demonstrate resistance against crop raiding with no compensation and free gorilla viewing on private land. To express their bitterness, some com­munity members revealed that:

If the park authorities keep a deaf ear, we know what the gorillas eat. We shall poison them. At least let us both lose. The park gets a lot of money at the expense of our livelihoods, our children have dropped out of school, and the animals have deprived us of our gardens and crops. Now you tell us that they are important, how?
Community member in Nkuringo, ­January 2013

Generally, the communities feel disenfranchised, disempowered and neglected in favour of gorillas and tourists who fetch lots of money for the government.

On the other hand, the reality is that park authorities are not deliberately indifferent and they are aware of the communities' plight. Particularly, there is no explicit policy on compensation in the case of crop raiding by animals in Uganda. Therefore, without clearing such false allegations, the conflict goes beyond the gorillas and spills over to the park staff, who are the legal custodians of the gorillas. It is possible that the sustainability of gorilla conservation and the future of the forests that accommodate them cannot be guaranteed if such conflicts persist.

In conclusion, these findings indicate that there is no major direct threat to gorillas from a social perspective. In fact, all key threats are indirect, accruing from unmet needs. The fact that communities do not hate the gorillas by their nature implies that once they are managed and kept within the forest boundaries, the possibility of communities harming gorillas would be greatly minimized. Other social issues could be managed if there are no major losses amidst clear knowledge of the economic returns that the gorillas fetch. However, if the situation persists, the next step would be for communities to put into action their threats, rendering sustainable gorilla conservation very fragile.


  • In absence of the compensation policy in Uganda, there is need to negotiate and agree with land owners/affected farmers on fees for gorilla viewing on private land, otherwise forceful gorilla trekking on private property without compensation is infringing on the communities’ rights and should be stopped.
  • Use conservation awareness creation and participatory approaches when negotiating community quid pro quo for conservation support and tolerance. Communities must be made to understand that improvement to their livelihoods cannot depend solely on the park and gorilla ecotourism. Managing expectations will be achieved by making realistic promises and fulfilling these promises to the communities.
  • Although there are complaints (coercion, military conduct, heavy fines, bribery, soliciting for tips etc.) by local communities against law enforcement officers, any laxity in law enforcement abets crime and can be devastating to gorillas thus undermining their conservation. Law enforcement must be further strengthened by improved intelligence systems to stop poaching, bushmeat networks, and other illegal activities in gorilla parks. There is need to increase vigilance and to institute more deterrent punishments against wildlife offenders. A participatory approach that involves local communities is necessary to justify and popularize the value of law enforcement and so render law enforcement officers and their actions acceptable by the resident communities. On the other hand, law enforcement must maintain good public relations with communities and show high professional and ethical conduct. Quality assurance and staff appraisal should be enhanced to maintain standards. Training of park staff in ethics of wildlife management and conservation is hereby recommended.
  • There is need to pro-actively create elaborate actions for promoting pro-poor gorilla conservation and tourism. Alternative survival strategies for vulnerable communities such as adopting ecotourism linked enterprises, organic farming, family planning, education, etc. should be promoted to curtail poverty and promote sustainable conservation and development. This helps to create a positive attitude towards gorillas and their ownership, and to support their conservation.

John Bosco Nkurunungi and Christine Ampumuza

Original report: Nkurunungi, J. B. & Ampumuza, C. (2013) Assessment of the Impacts of Mountain Gorilla Habituation and Tourism on their Sustainable Conservation. Report of a consultancy for the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.