Is Gorilla Tourism Causing Harm?
Watching gorillas in their natural habitat is something of a Holy Grail for wildlife lovers. In general, gorilla tourism is well managed to ensure that the animals are protected, and proceeds benefit conservation. But in spite of these safeguards, can we be sure that seeing gorillas in the wild isn’t harming them?
Conservation Primatologist Dr Kathryn Shutt explains how finding the secret to stress means getting your hands dirty…
Nowhere is our fascination with gorillas better demonstrated than in the multi-million pound wildlife tourism industry. Tourism and research based on habituated gorillas has great potential as a means to conserve gorillas and their habitats, as it raises millions of pounds each year.
However, in order for people to visit these incredible, wild animals, gorilla groups must go through a process called ‘habituation’. This means that a gorilla group will be tracked and followed by teams of skilled forest-trackers and researchers, day after day for anything from one to seven years, depending on the gorilla species and individual gorilla personalities. In the beginning, the gorillas groups will often show signs of being extremely scared of the human visitors, and flee. Their reaction over time may change to being very aggressive and then eventually, to ‘acceptance,’ of human presence.
The physiological response of gorillas to these close interactions with humans can be measured in their faeces, via a product of broken down stress hormones called faecal glucocorticoid metabolites (FGCMs). If gorillas (like humans) are subjected to experiences that cause chronically elevated FGCMs (in other words, are ‘stressed’ for a long time) they face the same health risks as us, such as reduced immune and reproductive function and greater susceptibility to infection and disease. It is therefore important that we understand how gorillas react to these processes required for tourism and research, so that we can aim to avoid negative health effects and maximise the conservation value of tourism.
Most tourists are very well intentioned, and would not deliberately act in a way that would disturb or pose risks to gorillas. However, gorilla tourism is very hard to manage and the ways in which our encounters with gorillas may affect their health and well-being are currently not well understood. For example, even habituated gorillas may still be affected (potentially stressed) by tourism visits, and all gorillas are extremely vulnerable to human diseases (from the common-cold through to scabies, polio and tuberculosis) which can be directly transmitted during close-contact visits. The fact that adequate control over gorilla tourists is often lacking is clearly demonstrated by many photographs and videos captured by tourists and guides, showing humans in close proximity to, and deliberately touching, gorillas.
The WWF Bai Hokou site is found in the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas in the Central African Republic, where a gorilla tourism program has been underway for more than 15 years. Working with the WWF and partners, I investigated whether gorillas’ behaviour and stress physiology (via FGCMs) were affected by a number of elements of tourism and research activities. I also observed and worked with tourists to understand the risks different behaviours pose to gorillas, to inform how tourism managers may be able to better protect gorillas.
The research informed us of a number of important outcomes. For example, we showed – through a comparison of four gorilla groups under different pressure from habituation and tourism – that the gorillas who were still being habituated had the highest FGCMs, and that even when left alone for up to 22 days, their FGCM levels did not drop down to a baseline level.
Don’t Break the Rules
This suggested to us that these gorillas were not able to ‘relax’ during breaks in the habituation process, and that therefore, making the habituation process as short as possible would be better for them in the long run. We also found that even habituated gorillas that were very used to tourists and researchers still experienced raised FGCMs when the frequency of people getting close to them increased. In other words, visitors who broke the 7m visitation rule not only put the gorillas at greater risk of disease transmission, but also caused their stress hormone levels to increase.
This finding has supported the introduction of a revised recommendation for tourists to stay at 10m from gorillas and to wear facemasks when at 7-10 m. Finally, we came to realise that very few visitors are aware of the different risks they may pose to gorillas, meaning that tourism managers need to make these risks much clearer so that people can chose to do the right thing.
Tourism is such an important tool that has the potential to positively contribute to wildlife conservation goals all over the world. However, we must always remember that where there are benefits there are likely costs, and work towards reducing these however we can. This starts with monitoring of the wildlife’s health and behaviour.
What can you do? There’s nothing wrong with wanting to experience wildlife and nature, but make sure you do your research and use reputable companies that support and enforce tourism regulations before you go. It’s easy to get carried away in the moment when you have a rare chance to experience wild animals up close in their natural environment. It’s a huge privilege and it makes us want to get closer, get a better picture, get a reaction or even touch. Try to remember though, that if the animal is looking at or reacting to you, it is being disturbed, and that is far from ‘natural’. Keeping your distance, sticking to the regulations and taking pride in not being noticed, is the best way to actually conserve while you observe.
Check out our RIGHT-tourism article on Wildlife Watching