The great apes living in central and east African rain forests include the mountain gorilla, two species of chimpanzees, the eastern lowland gorilla, the western lowland gorillas, the cross river gorilla and the Bonobo. These have been faced with cruel human threats since their first scientific discovery in 1902 including poaching for bush meat, habitat loss due to encroachment, civil wars and commercial logging, mining and human diseases outbreak driving the species to the brink of extinction.
Gorillas then became red listed by IUCN as species at risk of extinction and their habitats were gazetted into national parks which would be easily monitored and protected from human activities by wildlife rangers. This gave birth to ecotourism and gorilla tourism not only as vital conservation fundraising mechanisms but also help in the general protection of other wildlife.
Mountain gorillas are the most popular than the other subspecies and inhabit the dense tropical forests of Bwindi impenetrable forest in Uganda and the Virunga Volcanoes shared by Uganda, Rwanda and the DR Congo where as the lowland gorillas live in Democratic Republic of Congo Kahuzi Beiga and Odzala National park.
There was depletion of mountain gorilla numbers in the early 1970’s due to weak law enforcement, their population declined to less than 500 individuals across the Virunga region in Rwanda, Uganda and DRC. This havoc attracted the attention of conservationists to intervene by forming environmental laws restricting human contact with gorillas.
Therefore the answer to this question is absolutely yes, today the trend has greatly changed due to strong conservation by governments in central and east Africa through ecotourism which has been fronted to protect and save great apes and their habitats.
To ensure protection and conservation of the endangered apes, gorilla tourism was initiated under eco tourism. Ecotourism is understood according to the international ecotourism society as responsible travel to natural undisturbed areas that conserve the natural environment and also develop the livelihoods of local people/communities living outside those natural areas.
Gorilla tourism was meant to limit tourist contact with gorillas and most importantly generate revenues to help fund conservation activities and develop local communities. By limiting human activities with increased security of gorilla national parks, gorillas were no longer being poached as well as reduction of encroachment hence strengthening the integrity of gorilla ecosystems. Such a peaceful environment attracted many gorilla trekking safaris to Uganda and Rwanda than in DRC due to civil wars that have just started to fade out.
However in return for strict rules, ecotourism has increased the experience of tourists who come for gorilla trekking and are able to access the forest by the trails created viewing other wildlife. Gorilla national parks such as Bwindi impenetrable forest national park in Uganda, Volcanoes national park in Rwanda have been labeled as authentic nature based tourism sites.
However, ecotourism can save the great apes in Africa, gorilla national parks remain subject to long term negative impacts of unsustainable practices of accommodation facilities built within or around national parks. Hence those facilities have got to manage their wastes, use eco friendly sources of energy such as solar or bio gas.
Gorilla tourism increased public awareness to conserve gorillas and their habitats across gorilla range states of Rwanda, Uganda and DRC. Tourists therefore must abide by the strict gorilla trekking rules and regulations set which are the keys to minimize stress on gorillas and the forest from tourist’s daily visits. Hence forests retain their naturalness and become more attractive to nature lovers.
Limiting tourist contact with gorillas could not save the great apes without supporting the livelihoods of local communities whose well being depends on the natural resources. Revenues from gorilla tourism have been invested in local communities through creating employment opportunities for locals who work as guides and rangers hence improving their income.
In addition to employment, schools, health care centers, sustainable agriculture farms such rearing domestic animals and vegetable growing have been initiated. These projects act as an economic incentive and alternatives to natural resources such as water, firewood and bush meat hence poaching and encroachment have significantly reduced among local communities paving way for conservation of mountain gorillas. Thanks to ecotourism, there is hope for the conservation of great apes once again.
Despite all that, gorillas have been caught up in snare traps of poachers which target small antelope species. Gorilla veterinary doctors provide medical care to sick or injured gorillas in Both Uganda, Rwanda and DRC.
Several other international conservation organizations are working with local communities in Rwanda, Uganda and DRC to strengthen the management of gorilla national parks which are Bwindi impenetrable forest national park with half of the gorilla population (480 individuals), Mgahinga gorilla national park southwestern Uganda, volcanoes national park in Rwanda and virunga national park in eastern DR Congo.
There is also increasing willingness of countries to conserve great apes with the leading partner conservation organizations such as WWF, IUCN. An action plan for the conservation of the subspecies of eastern and western lowland gorillas and chimpanzees is ongoing in central Africa. However civil wars in DRC and Central African Republic and Ebola outbreak remain critical challenges to ecotourism.
Apparently one can say ecotourism has greatly saved the great apes, with the stable security in Uganda, Rwanda and partly in DRC, gorilla safaris have increased with the increase in gorilla population to 880 individuals. Tourism activities have been diversified and most tourists flock to these countries for gorilla tracking, hiking, nature walks, cultural tours, chimpanzee tracking, big game safaris and mountaineering.