Tourism is key to gorillas' fate

Lulengo, the dominant male, feigned dignified indifference, but the younger mountain gorillas in his troop stopped eating from time to time to stare at their visitors out of brown, uncannily human eyes. "They are curious, because they haven't seen a white face for months," explained our guide. "The gorillas were used to seeing white people all the time, but then the war came and tourism stopped."

We were in eastern Zaire's Virunga National Park, where Rwanda, Uganda and Zaire meet. Executive jets used to land at Goma airport with wealthy foreigners coming to see the last 320 mountain gorillas and other species, such as the strange giraffe-like okapi and the gravely endangered northern white rhino, of which only 30 are thought to remain. Now civil war has been added to all the other threats facing the animals, and Goma has become synonymous with human misery.

The Virunga park's director, Norbert Lusenge, and a conservator from the International Gorilla Conservation Project, Popol Verhoestraete, were making the first visit to the mountain gorillas since the war came to the Goma region in November last year. Escorted by three rebel soldiers, the party slogged up to the visitors' centre at the edge of the mountain rain forest to find that many of the park staff had fled, and that their vehicles, radios, tents and possessions had been looted by the retreating soldiers of President Mobutu Sese Seko's army. The tourist chalets were vandalised and stripped bare.

Outside, the ragged park staff paraded with machetes. Four months ago the rebels deprived the wardens of the rifles they formerly carried on anti-poaching patrols. They will only be re-armed after military training and political indoctrination.

Despite the collapse of normal patrolling and gorilla tracking, Lulengo's family had suffered no further casualties at human hands. They were the survivors of an attack in September 1995, when the dominant male, Rugabo, and one of his females were shot dead. A baby seized in the attack - probably for resale to a private collector or zoo - was later found hiding up a tree some 10 miles away.

According to Mr Verhoestraete, the failure of tourism could be the greatest long-term threat to the gorillas' survival. "Local people need to be persuaded that having the park and the gorillas actually benefits them," he says. "Otherwise this is rich agricultural land, and there's a lot of population pressure on it."

He estimates that gorilla tourism once brought in $500,000 (around pounds 315,000) a year to the park. Spinoffs like hotel accommodation, car hire, landing fees, food and visa fees probably exceeded this several times over.

Then in 1994 the Rwandan refugees arrived, further destabilising an already volatile region and endangering the park environment in their quest for firewood and fresh food. One family of gorillas ranged to within five miles of Kibumba refugee camp, at one time home to 200,000 refugees. In the 27 months they spent in Goma the refugees stripped bare the lush rain forest on the lower slopes of Mount Nyiragongo, cutting away an area the size of a football pitch each day.

Now most of the refugees have gone, along with the corrupt Zaire army officers who slaughtered the local wildlife for meat to sell to them. Despite continuing insecurity in the region, Mr Lusenge hopes tourism can resume in Virunga, designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

"What is special here is the very varied ecosystem - and the gorillas, of course," said Mr Lusenge. "This could be one of the planet's greatest tourist attractions."

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
News
i100
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments