Fearless few return to gorillas

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WHEN ADRIAN Tunnicliffe of Sheffield hiked into the misty mountains of western Uganda last week in pursuit of endangered mountain gorillas, he was on the first organised tour group to return to this rugged patch of forest since eight foreign tourists were hacked to death by members of Rwanda's Interahamwe militia here on 1 March.

"I was quite nervous about coming. I knew about the security, but would have been happier if there was more factual information about it," said Mr Tunnicliffe, a property manager whose wife refused to accompany him on the trip. Flanked by two Ugandan soldiers and a park warden bearing AK-47s, Mr Tunnicliffe and his five fellow tourists trekked past the roofless round hut burned by the killers, the only visible sign of that grim attack that thrust Uganda into world headlines and shattered its fast-growing tourism industry.

At the time of the massacre, only two soldiers and 30 park wardens were stationed at Bwindi. Today the 180 machine-gun-toting soldiers in and around the 130-square-mile Bwindi Impenetrable Forest make the tourists among the most heavily guarded in the world. Only a few soldiers walk through the jungle with tourists; most patrol park boundaries and keep 24-hour watch at camp grounds.

All the same, the tourists remain anxious. A third of the original 18- member tour group cried off, even though armed guards were hired to escort the group to the park. Absolute Africa, which organised the12-week Nairobi to Cape Town tour, made participants sign a waiver, and said it could not get insurance for the visit.

"When the raid happened we really feared that was the last nail in the coffin for tourism in Uganda," said Steven Kagoda, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Tourism. Fear about the Bwindi massacre has been compounded by a series of small bombs that have been detonated in taxi ranks and bars in the capital, Kampala, by Sudanese-backed rebels.

Since the park reopened on 4 April, 200 individual tourists have come, fewer than visited in May 1998 alone. Most have been backpackers and determined adventurers, but none on the lucrative organised tours that last year were able to command around $800 (pounds 500) for two days of travel and three days in the park.

Permits to see the gorillas, sold by the Uganda Wildlife Authority for $250 each, were booked for up to three years in advance before the Bwindi attack. Now virtually every advance booking has been cancelled, and once- scarce permits are freely available.

Tour operators fear that the loss of visitors will take years to overcome. "Uganda has lost 90 per cent of its tourists from overseas," said Mel Gormley, chairman of the Uganda Tour Oper- ators' Association and director of the Mantana safari lodge at Bwindi. "In Uganda, tourism basically is gorilla tourism. My company has lost about 95 per cent of its business. I have lost $1.2m and laid off 60 per cent of my staff."

Only 650 mountain gorillas remain in the world - half in 25 families in Bwindi, the rest scattered through the Virunga mountain range that stretches from northern Rwanda through south-west Uganda into Congo. Although the attack had no effect on the gorillas, conservationists worry that depressed tourism levels will erode support for the park, which is surrounded by dense human settlement.

Crop-raiding by the gorillas is a source of irritation for local people, but it has been manageable as long as tourist money flows into the area. To halt poaching and encourage support for conservation, 20 per cent of park fees are shared with local communities, financing road and school construction and much-needed employment. With virtually no fees coming in and many layoffs in tourist camps, however, there is a risk that subsistence farmers in the area will turn to the forest for food or timber that they can sell.

"The loss of revenue-sharing money will have a drastic effect out there," said Stephen Asumama, warden in charge at Bwindi. "That is really our greatest concern. With all these alternative forms of employment gone, people have to look elsewhere, and there are not many opportunities here."

Like thousands of tourists before them, Mr Tunnicliffe's group tramped for about two hours up steep muddy slopes through dense jungle to see a family of the rare gorillas. As tourists almost universally do, the group gushed in amazement at the experience of seeing adult gorillas calmly feeding a few yards away, gazing with evident intelligence at their human visitors.

Robbie Robinson, the former director of South Africa's National Parks Board who took over in May as head of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, is confident that the lure of the gorilla experience and beefed-up security will eventually win back the tourists.

"I am cautious," he said. "I don't want to be over optimistic. What I am telling tourists is that I would definitely go up to Bwindi. It is a terrific experience. My perception is that the rebels are not too anxious to go into an area where the ranger force and Uganda defence force are active. They would rather pick soft targets."