TACOMA, Washington — Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP) is in Southwest Uganda that became a protected park in 1991 because of its biodiversity, including having almost half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. Mountain gorillas were discovered in 1902, although it was not possible to track their numbers until the 1950s when there was a concern for their extinction. In 1989, it was estimated that there were only 620 mountain gorillas left and conservationists stepped in to help create BINP.

The idea of a protected park did not go over well with local Ugandans as the poverty rate in 1991 was roughly 94%. Many were living on less than $5.50 a day and used this land for their livelihood. Survival of the environment and community members were both important, so what was to be done?

Supporting Both Ugandans and Gorillas

Plans for local Ugandans and gorillas to coexist were created with Integrated Conservation and Development (ICD). The focus was to aid Ugandans battle against poverty while saving BINP at the same time. This led to an innovative idea of creating the world’s number one location for gorilla trekking, which are hiking trips to see gorillas in their natural habitat and watching their instinctive behaviors. Everyone involved in the planning had to be careful to find the right balance for this new venture to support Ugandans, gorillas and preserve the park from too many guests.

Currently, a gorilla trekking permit costs $700 per person, and the shortest, easiest trek is around two hours through steep terrain. Clearly, there is a limited target audience for this endeavor; however, it can also raise enough funds to be cost-effective. To expand, the park conservation receives 75% of the profits, the Ugandan government collects 15% and the last 10% supports the surrounding communities.

A long-term assessment of the ICD done in 2010 determined that increased tourism and job opportunities due to BINP helped lower the Ugandan poverty rate to 89%. Ugandans surrounding BINP had started to manage and care for the park through such efforts as fire control, reduced poaching and advocacy. Now, 90% of the park’s employees are from the surrounding communities.

Equally important are the tourist attractions that local entrepreneurs began, which include:

  • Golden monkey trekking
  • Chimpanzee trekking
  • Bird watching
  • Mountain climbing
  • Cave exploration
  • White water rafting

Additionally, locals sell food, handmade sculptures and painted carvings of gorillas. Tourists also need places to stay and many locals are employed at hotels and lodges. Small businesses were bringing in 70% to 80% of the profits for the area, helping Ugandans fight poverty.

One such business is Gorilla Conservation Coffee (GCC), founded by Uganda’s first female wildlife vet, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. This is a cause-driven business by Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), an organization that focuses on humans and wildlife’s co-existence through improved livelihoods. This venture began when Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka learned that farmers near BINP were not paid fairly for their coffee and were struggling to support their families. This forced them to illegally use resources from the park to survive. Her solution? Providing pay above market price to farmers. Additionally, GCC trains farmers on sustainable practices, helping them to increase quality and yields. CTPH also makes it a point to develop education and healthcare for the community’s surrounding BINP.

A New Threat to the Unity of Ugandans and Gorillas

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated Uganda, like so many other countries around the world. People have stopped traveling, which means many Ugandans must suddenly find different ways to survive. Some gave up farming to begin their entrepreneurship. Now, they need the time and resources to begin farming again.

Another battle the park rangers have dealt with is an escalation of poaching as people are trying to get through the pandemic. All the gorillas are vital to the survival of the species but one remarkable silverback gorilla, Rafiki, was killed in June 2020 after leading his Nkuringo group for 12 years. He was a well-known and popular gorilla in Uganda.

Poaching is not the only danger gorillas are facing. As the community wants tourism to return slowly and safely, the health of the gorillas is in question. A team from CTPH collects monthly samples from the Nkuringo group to make sure parasites are not being unintentionally passed. “Because we are so closely related to the mountain gorillas and chimpanzees we share over 98% genetic material and can easily make each other sick,” explains Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka.

The current fear is that gorillas can contract COVID-19 because they have the same ACE2 protein receptors as humans. There is no way to explain to this physically expressive species that they need to socially distance themselves and wear face masks to protect their groups. So, how can BINP safely bring back tourism to help Ugandans battle against poverty and keep people and animals alike healthy? “One thing that I can say is, I’ve been encouraged to hear that tourists themselves are demanding that the gorillas are safe and that when they come to visit them again, they don’t want to make them sick,” says Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka. For starters, more precautions are required. Visitors must use hand sanitizer and have their temperature taken before trekking and stay a minimum of 25 feet away from the gorillas.

Ugandans battling against poverty are also finding ways to multitask and profit from the new safety measures. Ride 4 A Woman (R4AW) is an organization that empowers more than 300 women struggling with HIV and/or domestic violence. Business is slower due to the pandemic but it has adapted by making masks for locals, rangers, trekkers and has recently introduced an online shop. By teaching skills such as sewing and weaving to create furniture covers, clothes, hair accessories and electronic cases, R4AW can sell products online or in the local shop near BINP. All profits go back to the women for safe drinking water, shelter, learning new skills and microfinancing. Additionally, re-opening gorilla tourism will bring tourists to R4AW’s guesthouse accommodations and trekking adventures.

Looking to the Future

As of September 2020, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, announced the reopening of the airport. Towns around the park have seen a boost in activity due to this and because BINP has announced a baby boom of seven baby mountain gorillas. In anticipation of some normalcy returning to the community, the R4AW organization has encouraged women to boost the production of handmade items to sell.

Over this time period, mountain gorillas have increased in numbers from 620 in 1989 to more than 1000. Also, 55% of Ugandans lived below the poverty line in 1993 but have reduced that number to 21.4% in 2019. Uganda has successfully developed a healthier relationship with its ecosystem to save mountain gorillas while alleviating the national poverty rate.

Heather Babka
Photo: Wikimedia Commons