Certified Gorilla Friendly - Safeguarding Gorilla Tourism as a Conservation Tool

Categories: Gorilla Journal, Journal no. 56, Tourism

The International Gorilla Conservation Programme has been operating for more than 25 years, and has provided financial and technical support for the introduction and development of tourism as a conservation tool for mountain gorillas within their three range States. While IGCP does not manage mountain gorilla tourism - that is left strictly to the Protected Area Authorities - we strongly advocate for the continued pursuit of best practice approaches by all involved, from authority, to manager, to guide, to private operators, to tracker, to tourist.

What underlines best practice approaches is the precautionary principle - utilize as few gorilla groups as needed, take as few people as possible, and stay no more than one hour of viewing at a safe distance. It is even better to wear a mask or at a minimum at least a barrier (even a cloth bandana) to cover your nose and mouth in proximity to gorillas. These principles have been documented in best practice guidelines by IUCN (Macfie and Williamson 2010; Gilardi et al. 2015).

These best practice approaches can be perceived as a barrier to greater revenue by an authority, and a barrier to getting better tips from tourists for perceived good service by a guide. However, there is a stronger case to be made for the best practice approaches in ensuring greater visitor satisfaction and willingness to pay, and ensuring that the objectives of gorilla tourism are sustained - conservation of the species itself.

In 2012, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme began working with the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network to explore transitioning the best practice guidelines into standards on which the various actors could evaluate themselves against best practice, and also provide the basis for an audit to establish eligibility for a specific tourism ecolabel. Certified Gorilla FriendlyTM was born, and since its inception, and through a consultative process, the following set of agreed required and recommended standards have been developed:

  • Parks & Park Guides
  • Hotels & Lodges
  • Tour Operators
  • Drivers & Private Guides
  • Travel Agents
  • Park-edge Community Products

These are complimented with a full suite of documents - certification manual and audit forms, as well as a brand manual. While these were developed specifically for mountain gorillas, Certified Gorilla FriendlyTM is a voluntary ecolabel and the standards were developed so that they can be applied to tourism of any gorilla subspecies.

The pursuit of an ecolabel to create a market-driven incentive mechanism to maintain best practices is not new, but the application of an ecolabel to contribute to the conservation of a specific wildlife species is. Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network's exploration of Certified Gorilla FriendlyTM standards has led to the development of similar ecolabels - Sea Turtle FriendlyTM and Elephant FriendlyTM.

A professional standards writer was engaged to translate the best practice guidelines into auditable standards. For each standard extracted from the best practice guideline, an informed decision was taken after consultation of experts and stakeholders in regards to which standards were required, and which standards were recommended. Certified Gorilla FriendlyTM went one step further and identified those required standards considered to be Critical, for which non-compliance would subject the entity to exclusion or suspension of the designation of Certified Gorilla FriendlyTM.

Through the process, the IUCN best practice guidelines which were difficult to reconcile with current practices in mountain gorilla tourism stipulated the percentage of great ape population to be exposed to tourism, the number of tourists per visitation, and the use of face masks.

We hope that in the near future, people will start seeing the Certified Gorilla FriendlyTM label (http://wildlifefriendly.org/gorilla-friendly-tourism/) as a way to identify and confirm that a business, park, or product they are supporting as a consumer meets or exceeds standards. In the meantime, individual tourists can take the Gorilla FriendlyTM Pledge at www.gorillafriendly.org and/or provide feedback on your experience at the same site.

We strongly encourage all authorities, private operators, and conservation organizations involved in gorilla tourism to reach out to IGCP or the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network to initiate an audit against the standards, and to seek certification if eligible. We are actively seeking pilot sites, operators, and facilities. While we focus on tourism, it is important to recognize that any human-gorilla interaction - whether by tourists, researchers, park and security staff, or illegal/legal resource users - can contribute to habitat destruction, behaviour change, and disease transmission if not carefully managed. It is this improved management and monitoring, and the constant pursuit of better practices across all management activities, which will help secure the future for mountain gorillas.

About to visit gorillas or know someone who is? Here are some pointers:

  1. Make sure your visit is an authorized visit and you have an original receipt from the appropriate authority. Corruption is the biggest threat to any tourism as a conservation tool.
  2. Avoid any tour operator or product - even if on offer by the relevant authority - which promotes longer stays (more than one hour).
  3. Follow park authorities' guidance and observe gorillas from a safe distance (minimum distance of 7 m/23 feet if wearing a mask, or 10 m/33 feet if not wearing a mask), and only take and share photos that respect this principle.

Observing gorillas from a safe distance:

  1. Approach slowly, together, until the gorillas come into view.
  2. Viewing will not always be perfect - appreciate that there may be branches and other vegetation between you and gorillas.
  3. Move slowly, deliberately, and together - do not disperse.
  4. Be patient where you are, and only shift after the gorillas do, keeping in mind that some gorillas may be behind you.

If your guide does not respect these principles, please leave this as a comment in the guest book, inform a park manager, and/or register your experience through the feedback section of www.gorillafriendly.org.

Anna Behm Masozera

More information on the following websites:

Gorilla Friendly Tourism

Gorilla Friendly


Gilardi, K. V. et al. (2015): Best Practice guidelines for health monitoring and disease control in great ape populations. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group

Macfie, E. J. & Williamson, E. A. (2010): Best Practice Guidelines for Great Ape Tourism. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group