Back in 1979, an estimated 500 million television viewers watched a landmark moment in natural history documentaries, as David Attenborough sat with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Attenborough said at the time:
There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know.
The gorillas that Attenborough met were habituated for research purposes, and since then many gorilla groups have been habituated purely for tourism. As a result, thousands of tourists have now visited Rwanda and Uganda’s wild mountain gorillas and, to a lesser extent, the lowland gorillas of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Gabon.
Slightly less exotically, in 1961 I went to London Zoo and saw Guy the gorilla. I was utterly astonished and inspired by the sight of this animal. He turned and watched the crowd; I believe at the time I caught his eye. That moment has never left me, and the experience fired my imagination and instilled a desire to visit Africa.
You can imagine how I felt when, as a university student in 1979, I watched Attenborough’s now-famous footage from Rwanda. Could I possibly, one day, do that too?
In July this year that dream became a reality, and I went on a wildlife tour to Uganda. I undertook two gorilla treks and was thrilled by the experience. I delighted in the enthusiasm and knowledge of my guides and was moved by personal accounts of schools being built and medical facilities being improved through the local community benefits of gorilla tourism. Several of my guides said their lives had significantly improved as a result of tourism.
Money and memories
So what is the wider significance of my tale of exchanging glances with wild gorillas, 54 years after doing the same with Guy the gorilla at London Zoo?
Although admittedly expensive by many tourism standards (a gorilla trekking permit costs up to US$700 per person), it is a venture worth doing because it is in ecotourism where wild gorillas’ future now lies. Although the pioneering conservationist Dian Fossey was originally against tourism, it has been instrumental in safeguarding habitat for both lowland and mountain gorillas in Africa.
The ultimate success of wildlife tourism depends on many factors, the most important of which is the protection of enough suitable habitat. And this is where the issue lies. All gorillas are endangered, and lowland gorillas in particular are declining as a result of war, hunting, ebola, deforestation and habitat fragmentation.
It may be difficult to be inspired by gorillas if one is hungry, battling malaria, need land to grow crops, or if authorities are cutting down the forest and you have no say in the matter. Or if you are dodging bullets. As Attenborough said on the subject:
It seems really very unfair that man should have chosen the gorilla to symbolise everything that is aggressive and violent, when that is the one thing that the gorilla is not - and that we are.
Getting the right balance
So where does our responsibility lie? Many of these problems can be managed through financial, technical, health and educational assistance, and a lot of concerned people are working towards these aims in Africa. The task, however, is huge and protected areas need funding, adequate protection to deter hunting and damage, and the instigation of appropriate tourism management.
The only population of gorillas that is stable and/or increasing is the mountain gorillas in Uganda. But there are only about 880 left in the wild, 400 of them in Uganda. They are, of course, vastly outnumbered by humans, so protecting their interests becomes a tricky balancing act. There is a strong need for security, mostly to deter poaching, and this costs money – one of the reasons why the gorilla permits are expensive!
The mention of finances brings us to the trickiest problem of all, because more money doesn’t automatically mean good news for the gorillas. There are oil interests in the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda, and the history of the DRC in particular has been beset by conflicts over resources.
Say a decision is taken to start drilling for oil in the Virunga National Park. Would an oil pipeline improve the lives of nearby local communities? Would it improve the park? Would it help the gorillas? It’s difficult to imagine the answers all being “yes”.
So here is the catch-22 at the heart of the gorillas’ lives. Gorilla conservation needs money, and for that it needs tourists. But to get to Uganda, or Rwanda, or wherever, these tourists have to get into a plane, which needs fuel. In fact almost everyone in the world wants fuel, which is why the resources industry can be such a financial boon for local communities, which is why communities are often keen to embrace resource development, which in turn can harm conservation.
Will it be tourism or the resources sector that seals the fate of the mountain gorillas? This is a dilemma for those of us who want (and can afford) to see what the world has to offer. I freely admit that my life has been enriched because of the opportunity to see gorillas in the wild. We can all choose what to do with our money, and I chose to share mine with the Ugandan people and in doing so, help to protect gorillas.
Yet we are all bound up in using energy and resources, and so we must reflect on our relationship with nature and realise the consequences of our collective actions and lifestyles.
Millions of people around the world continue to be amazed by meeting gorillas in zoos, as I was at the age of 10. Many will continue to be inspired, as were those millions watching Attenborough on television decades ago. Thus it is my hope that we can give something back to the gorillas. We can do this by understanding how our lifestyle is linked to the gorillas, by realising that our mobile phone, oil company shares, and use of resources can impact on the lives of animals in distant lands.
This is the start of a conversation about what we can do to help. We can lobby companies and politicians to value nature more. We can support and join organisations that do this work on our behalf. And perhaps, if we’re lucky, we can take the holiday of a lifetime and in the process show that we care about gorillas.
In doing so we also realise that, like great works of art, fine music and magnificent buildings, gorillas and their habitat are a rich source of inspiration and delight, and a treasure that can be saved, if we care enough.