Gorillas of the Missed

Traveling with a Cause in a Dangerous World

The Congo and its neighboring mountains were never a travel destination for the faint of heart, but the chance to see gorillas in their native mists has long been a powerful lure. Visitors flooded into neighboring Uganda until this past March, when 14 tourists were abducted and eight brutally murdered.

© Craig R. Sholley

Explorers of the last century inspired awe and fear in the hearts of readers when they described the dreaded manlike creature that lived in the mountain forests. Two 19th century scientists, Carl Aiken and George Schaller, were the first bold enough to seek out the fabled ape in its own domain, and their encounters were marked by ample respect for this creature capable of ripping its visitors limb from limb.

The famed Dian Fossey later proved that regular, peaceful contact could be made with the mountain gorillas. Her stunning communication breakthroughs with Digit, and other Rwandan primates she came to know, paved the way for researchers to habituate mountain gorillas to tourist visits. Fossey’s untimely death was one of many precursors of the Uganda tragedy.

Weighing the Risks

The brutal civil war in Rwanda closed Volcanoes National Park in 1997. With only some 650 mountain gorillas left in the wild, adventurous tourists turned to neighboring Uganda, where half the remaining population survived.

Uganda was until recently an oasis of peace in the war-torn region, but the refuge it provided has been destabilized from the Congo (formerly Zaire). But was Uganda ever safe for travelers? The urgent need to conserve the mountain gorilla may well have provided the motivation for Uganda and a host of sponsoring conservation organizations to overlook some of the obvious travel dangers. Ecotourism has provided local farmers a motivation to save both the native forests and their wild inhabitants.

Should ecotourists even think of returning to visit the mountain gorillas? Both Bwindi National Park in Uganda and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda have reopened, in April and July respectively. At Volcanoes, tourists accompanied by armed guards can travel in groups of eight, at a cost of $250 each. “Civilian and military authorities have reassured us that the security situation is good,” says Jean Bizimana of the Rwandan Office of Tourism. The first dozen foreigners, including three Americans, returned under tight security to Bwindi soon after it reopened.

But any prospective visitors should proceed with caution. “Wherever you travel in the world there is a risk,” says Costas Christ, former Peace Corps director in Uganda. “The Ugandan government reacted very quickly to the crisis, and they treated it with the utmost seriousness, but there is still a rebel insurgency there.”

Despite perceptions, however, Africa has not been a notably dangerous place to travel. In 1997, there were five attacks on the continent that specifically targeted Americans, according to State Department statistics. In the same year, there were 23 anti-American attacks in Europe and 91 in Central and South America. And in the same month as the horrific events in Uganda, three American human rights workers, defenders of the indigenous U’wa people, were blindfolded and shot dead in the rainforests of Colombia by a far-left group.

An Unstable World

Danger is sometimes part of the package for ecotravelers willing to put themselves in harm’s way. Global Exchange, based in San Francisco, sponsors what it calls “reality tours.” According to Medea Benjamin, the group’s founding director, “Global Exchange specializes in travel to places that have social conflicts, because we think Americans should understand those conflicts. Dangers are relative, and they can be outweighed by the quality of raw experience.”

Foreign visits help sustain the gorillas in their habitat, and the interruption has left Craig Sholley, conservation program director for International Expeditions and a former director of the Mountain Gorilla Project, very concerned about the animals’ fate. “It is urgent to get the mountain gorilla tourism programs re-established,” he says. “The supplies, dollars and outside interest ecotourism generates are fundamental to mountain gorilla conservation.” Sholley adds, however, that it’s difficult to determine when the region will be safe again.

There’s no question that both community development and wildlife conservation in the gorilla zone are dependent on the rebirth of tourism. A Bwindi resident, Ignatius Byamugyisha, who was interviewed after the attack, made that clear. “Gorillas are important because they bring in the tourists,” he says. “If they don’t, they are not. If the tourists don’t come, we will try our luck in the forest. Before this we were good timber cutters.”

MEGAN EPLER WOOD is president of the Vermont-based Ecotourism Society.