Coming face-to-face with group of gorillas was a humbling experience. My guide through one of Uganda's lush national parks estimated that the silverback in front of us was 450 pounds, and the animal’s hulking arms and massive chest offered no disagreement. But he sat casually, feet out in front like a human, eating bamboo stalks. Our guide had been tracking and researching this particular family and explained the dynamics of daily life for the gorillas as we watched them wrestle and pound their chests. Soon, a baby emerged from the bush, walking on all fours toward us. He sat down next to one of the other trekkers and grabbed hold of the side of her pants. He looked up at us, before rolling backwards down the small hill, returning to his parents and the bamboo grove.
For our group, this close encounter was a delight—in fact, it single-handedly justified the expensive-but-mandatory $450 trekking permit. But it is exactly the kind of situation that keeps gorilla advocates like Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka up at night.
In Uganda, gorilla trekking takes place in two regions: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Kisoro and Bwindi National Park. At Bwindi’s Gorilla Health and Community Conservation Centre, Dr. Gladys conducts research on gorilla health and human-gorilla disease transfer. Her work is inspired by that of the late Dian Fossey, a pioneer primatologist whose research center in Rwanda is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. According to Dr. Gladys, tourism has brought new protection for the gorillas, but it has also created new problems for them.
In the last decade, tourism in Uganda has grown significantly. American visitors alone averaged more than 52,000 visitors a year between 2011-2015—a 46 percent increase from 2006-2010. The new wave of visitors, who are increasingly interested in gorilla trekking, provides economic incentive for local communities to protect the fascinating animals, fight poaching, and prevent the destruction of the surrounding environment. As it is for so many species in Africa, tourism makes a living gorilla worth more than a dead one.
Unfortunately, as the gorillas have habituated to new crowds, they’ve lost their fear of humans. Locals and tourists are required to stay a minimum of seven meters (about 20 feet) away from the creatures, but gorillas often approach groups, both on treks (as I witnessed) and in the local villages surrounding Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Aside from the common-sense human safety concerns associated with close interactions with wildlife, this close interaction also poses a big threat to the gorillas’ health. Because humans are closely related to gorillas, there is a high chance that we can transfer diseases to the creatures, which can then spread throughout the gorilla population.
At the Conservation Center, visitors get a firsthand look at how Dr. Gladys monitors the gorillas’ health and the tactics she uses to change community behavior and motivate locals to conserve the forest. Visitors also learn about the safest ways to interact with the gorillas and can take researcher-led treks like the one I took to gain a deeper understanding of the animals and their habits. Particularly interested travelers can also camp at the Conservation Center for a small fee ($25 per night including breakfast).
Outside the conservation center, too, Dr. Gladys seeks to educate all potential gorilla trekkers on how to avoid doing accidental harm to the gorillas. In the next few years, she hopes that the government will pass stricter regulations (based on her research) to protect gorillas from the transfer of human disease. Until then (and at very least), she says, “Tourists should wear clean clothes, not view [the gorillas] when they are sick, and turn away to cough or sneeze if they have an allergy. Because gorillas often don’t respect the seven-meter rule—the baby gorillas especially are very curious and playful—tourists will often get very close to them; I strongly advocate for masks to be worn to ensure they are protected from human disease.”
Want to trek with Dr. Gladys?
You can arrange to go on a trek with researchers from Dr. Gladys’s Conservation Centre, or perhaps Dr. Gladys herself, by contacting the Adventure Consultants, which handle all bookings for Dr. Gladys. They offer a package tour, Dr. Gladys Intimate Gorilla Experience, as well as custom tours.
No matter where you go, gorilla trekking and chimpanzee trekking permits are mandatory in Uganda. The permits cost a flat rate charged by and paid directly to the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). Tour operators may charge additional fees for other services like transportation, guiding, and lunch. Permits are discounted in the low-season months of April, May, and November in 2017, to US$450 per person (regularly US$600 per person) for gorilla treks and US$100 per person (regularly US$150) for chimp trekking permits.