The recent popular YouTube video showing a tourist being touched by wild mountain gorillas has captivated more than a million viewers and will likely inspired many travelers to book a trip to visit mountain gorillas themselves. However, while the desire to connect intimately with one of our closest relatives is an innate reaction, such close contact with this endangered species is not the best conservation. Disease transmission and negative behavior modification due to contact with humans are very real problems for mountain gorillas, some of whom have become ill, been injured, and even died as a result of their proximity to humans. That said, tourism and the work of scientists, researchers, and other experts with gorillas are vital to the species’ survival.
For those of you ape aficionados looking to make a positive impact on mountain gorilla conservation, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project would like to suggest that 10 ways you can help:
1. Trek to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, DR Congo, or Uganda.
Without gorilla tourism, mountain gorillas might have gone extinct. The regions where mountain gorillas live are surrounded by the densest human populations in Africa. Most of the people living in these areas are farmers, so the land is of tremendous value. However, the governments of Rwanda, Uganda, and DR Congo have kept gorilla habitat off limits to development in part because the revenue gained through tourism outweighs the worth of the land for other purposes. The gorilla trekking permits are pricey ($400 in DR Congo and $500 in Rwanda and Uganda), but by purchasing permits, you’re not only buying a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with this charismatic species, you’re providing the economic incentive for the gorillas’ protection. Visit the tourism websites for gorilla trekking Rwanda, DR Congo, and Uganda to learn more.
2. Do not trek to see gorillas if you are sick.
Due to the genetic similarity between humans and mountain gorillas, the gorillas are susceptible to many of the same infectious diseases that affect people. Mountain gorillas are also immunologically naïve, meaning they are particularly susceptible to human diseases because of their historic isolation from people. Research conducted by the Gorilla Doctors and other scientists has proven that mountain gorillas have died as a result of catching infections that originated in people. Infectious disease, after trauma, is the leading cause of death in mountain gorillas, accounting for 20% of acute mortality. The most common infection is respiratory disease, which can range from mild colds to severe pneumonia. To protect gorillas from such infections, the national park authorities ask that anyone feeling sick or running a fever to not trek gorillas.
3. Stay at least 7 meters away from the gorillas.
In order to reduce the risk disease transmission and to avoid changing or disturbing the gorillas’ natural behavior, MGVP has worked with the national park authorities to establish the rule of staying 7 meters (21 feet) or more from the gorillas. The gorillas themselves, especially youngsters, don’t know the rules and may approach humans, but tourists should make the effort to back away and avoid touching the animal if possible. The 7-meter rule should be observed at all times, even when gorillas leave the national park and venture on to property owned by tourist lodges and camps.
Donate to conservation organizations working protect mountain gorillas.
One of the most effective ways to help mountain gorillas is to donate money to organizations working on the ground to conserve the species. Numerous organizations including MGVP have spent decades trying to find effective methods for protecting mountain gorillas and most rely on grants and donations to fund their work.
When donating your money to support any cause, it’s important to do some research on the organization you’re considering giving to determine how successful the group is in carrying out its mission. You should find the answers to questions like, “What methods does the organization use to accomplish its stated goals?” “Does the organization have any data or statistics to show that its methods are having an impact?” Find answers on the organization’s website and annual reports or send an inquiry to their development officer.
MGVP is proud to be the only organization providing direct life-saving medical care to mountain gorillas in the wild. Research has shown that the work of the Gorilla Doctors and the anti-poaching efforts of rangers and trackers we work with may be responsible for up to 40% of the growth of the mountain gorilla species in the Virunga Massif over the last 10 years. You can make a donation on our website.
5. Do other activities in the park besides gorilla trekking.
The vast majority of tourists who visit the national parks where gorillas live spend a day or two trekking gorillas and then leave. However, all of the gorilla parks offer other amazing wilderness experiences. As with gorilla trekking, the revenue earned through these activities further incentivizes the governments and local people to protect mountain gorilla habitat. You can climb the active Nyiragongo volcano, home to the world’s largest lava lake, in DR Congo or can climb extinct volcanoes in Rwanda and Uganda, such as the snow-covered Mt. Karismibi or the fluted peaks of Mt. Sabyinyo. Both Rwanda and Uganda offer treks to see golden monkeys (another highly endangered primate), and in Rwanda you may also visit the gravesite and former research station of Dian Fossey. Ask your tour provider about the options available.
6. Support local businesses and community projects around the national parks.
As much effort as the governments and conservation organizations put into protecting the gorillas, the support of the local people surrounding the parks is vital to ensure the preservation of gorilla habitat. The more local people share in tourism revenue and benefit from non-profit and community efforts in the area, the more likely they are to want to protect the mountain gorillas. Tourists can help by frequenting local restaurants, shops, and other businesses or making contributions to community projects around the park. For instance, tourists can pay to visit the Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village near Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, which employs former poachers as cultural interpreters and performers.
7. Don’t buy products made with wild animal parts.
While mountain gorillas are very rarely targeted by poachers, other animals living in the national parks where gorillas live are actively hunted. Poachers mostly set snares catch small antelopes to bring home to their families for food but occasionally larger animals such as buffalo or elephants may be targeted. Gorillas often get caught in poachers’ snares set for other animals, not to mention that poachers’ very presence in the forest disturbs the environment and increases the risk of zoonotic disease transmission. While the main purpose of poaching is to obtain bush meat, wild animal skins, bones, and ivory may be used in crafts and other items sold to tourists. If you have any doubt about a product’s origins, don’t buy it. And certainly, in the rare instance you may see or hear of someone selling a live wild animal, report it to the national park authorities.
8. Trek with a tour provider that donates a portion of the trip cost towards conservation efforts.
When researching tour packages to see gorillas, consider booking with a provider that uses a portion of their profits to support conservation projects. For example, Terra Incognita Ecotours, which offers 8-day Rwanda tours including a visit with the Gorilla Doctors, donates a portion of the trip cost to MGVP. In DR Congo, you can book packages including permits, transport, and accommodations directly through Virunga National Park, meaning profits go back to the park itself.
9. Organize a fundraiser.
Can’t afford to make significant personal donation or travel to Africa? Organize or participate in a fundraiser to help raise money for mountain gorilla conservation. In the past, schools have raised money for MGVP through bake sales and fun runs. Travelers and volunteers visiting gorillas in Rwanda have sold gorilla t-shirts to raise money to pay for their trips and make a donation to MGVP. One of biggest our fans even raised $30,000 in donations and pledges by walking 228 miles from Seattle to Portland, Oregon!
10. Spread the word about mountain gorilla conservation.
Anyone can make a difference for the gorillas by telling their friends, family, and colleagues about the mountain gorillas and the efforts being made to save them. Remember that even though mountain gorillas are critically endangered, their story is a positive one! Mountain gorillas are the only subspecies of non-human great ape growing in number. Fewer than 250 animals were counted in the mid-80s when Dian Fossey was researching the gorillas but today that population is numbered at nearly 800 animals. This species has a fighting chance for survival if we continue to work to address conservation challenges.
Please consider supporting MGVP by making a secure online donation. Every dollar you give goes to directly supporting our gorilla health programs and One Health initiative. Thank you for your generosity.
For the most up-to-date information about the Gorilla Doctors, “like” our Facebook page. You’ll find gorilla health reports, news items, photos, videos, and links to related content.