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Impacts of Habituation for Ecotourism on the Gorillas of Nkuringo

Impacts of Habituation for Ecotourism on the Gorillas of Nkuringo


The gorillas of Bwindi have been habituated for ecotourism in the region of Buhoma since April of 1993. The original Mubare group is still intact and continues to be visited daily by tourists. Another original group, Katendegyere, disappeared from the area and was later replaced by the large Habinyanja group, which has since fissioned (one group retains the original name while the other is called Akatale). Tourism was proposed for a fourth group, Nkuringo, in an area outside of Buhoma (a 6-hour walk southeast of Buhoma). Although started in 1996, habituation was not complete until 1998 and “mock” tourism was not implemented until April 2004.

My research team began studying the impacts of habituation on the behavioural ecology of this group in 1999, but our work was cut short by the massacre in Buhoma in March of that year. We began again in July 2001 and have been following the Nkuringo group on almost a daily basis since. My aim in this report is not to present scientific data as they will appear elsewhere but to report on some of the experiences from the past 4 years and to provide recommendations for improvement of gorilla well-being.

The main issue of well-being in this group (as well as those in Buhoma) is that after they lose their fear of humans they begin to use of areas outside the park boundary, which can influence both their health and behaviour. With regard to health, studies emphasize the need for more precautions (e.g., Homsy 1999; Woodford et al. 2002) as habituated gorilla groups have been shown to have increased endo- and ecto-parasitic loads (Graczyk et al. 2001; Nizeyi et al. 2001) and complications with respiratory infections and measles (Hastings et. al. 1991). With regard to behavioural changes, little research has been conducted due to tight restrictions of visitation to these groups and a policy of “no research” on tourist gorilla groups. This has changed recently as managers and government wildlife officials start recognizing the need for this information. The first such study on direct impacts of actual tourist visits was recently conducted in Volcanoes National Park (Steklis et al. 2004). Among other findings, they demonstrated that tourist gorilla groups spent significantly more time moving at the expense of feeding when tourists were with the gorillas. A similar study has since been conducted in Buhoma and is in progress on the Nkuringo group.

Our data demonstrate that Nkuringo spends most of their time outside the park boundary (76% of their nest sites) and although rules and regulations exist for tourism purposes (to reduce potential contact between gorillas and humans) they may not be strict enough (Homsy 1999) and they are not always followed in the Virungas (McNeilage 1996) or Bwindi (Macfie 1997). An even less controlled situation exists regarding contact with local people living in surrounding communities. In Bwindi, gorilla groups used for tourism live close to the park edge; a decision made to reduce impact of the park by providing most of its infrastructure outside the boundary. The area surrounding Bwindi in southwestern Uganda, however, maintains one of the highest densities of rural human habitation (about 200-300 people per km²) and one of the highest population growth rates in the world (ranging from 1.7 to 4.5% in some districts; Ministry of Planning and Economic Development 1997). In addition, agricultural land abuts the park boundary as there was no buffer zone present during most of this study. This means that if gorillas venture out of the park there is a high likelihood there will be problems with health, safety, crop raiding, tourism (as most tourists are dissatisfied with watching gorillas in people’s fields), and relations between local people and park officials.

During our study, gorillas devastated many banana plantations and also fed on eucalyptus and sweet potato. It was up to the rangers (or the HUGO – Human Gorilla Conflict Force – team) to chase them out of the fields, which increased risks of aggressive encounters. We also often found gorilla and human dung in close association (e.g., a knuckle print was found in one specimen of human dung). The human dung was loaded with nematodes. Baboons also use these areas and a preliminary analysis found that both gorillas and baboons share many parasites (Hope et al. 2004). Most were of bovine origin, which is not surprising as cattle graze within these areas. It would be interesting to include humans in this equation. While outside the park, the gorillas also tended to nest on and near watersheds, resulting in large amounts of dung entering water sources. The preference for these areas may be problematic in that it can contaminate drinking water and pollute water flowing into the Kashasha River.

Although Nkuringo tended to stay within 400 m outside the park boundary, they did sometimes venture far, a few times nesting near the main road in the town of Ntungamo (at least 1.2 km from the park boundary). When far from the park or raiding crops, they were often scared off and chased, which could increase stress levels. In addition, the Nkuringo group has suffered chronically from scabies infections that require veterinary intervention. Each intervention resulted in increased path length and more than likely contributed to stress.

Hopefully, data on how habituation influences habitat use will be useful in implementing full tourism on this group in the future. In fact, GIS maps from this study have been used by UWA (Ugandan Wildlife Authority) and IGCP (International Gorilla Conservation Programme) to help determine where tourist facilities should be set up to ease impact on the group. In addition, past study reports had recommended the implementation of a buffer zone, which has since been completed. Although these 350 extra meters are beneficial, it is important to note that gorillas do range more than 1 km outside the park boundary. Proper management of this zone, which is still in consideration after more than a year that it has been in place, is crucial to keep the gorillas from exiting this area and once again entering agricultural fields. During my last field season in June/July 2004, the buffer zone was being used heavily by Nkuringo. As they used this area they were allowed to feed on and destroy the crop plants (mostly bananas) that had been left behind by the farmers who had moved out. Rangers made little effort to chase the group as this region was now considered a continuation of the park. This is unfortunate. Whereas the gorillas were continually chased in the past, they were now free to eat in peace. Once these plants within the buffer zone are gone, what is to stop them from leaving the zone, once again, to raid fields abutting the zone? It is recommended that rangers continue to chase gorillas from these areas until management can cut down and remove all crop plants within the buffer zone.

Daily monitoring of the group has many benefits, including the keeping of health reports on each individual. As mentioned above, this group has suffered chronically from scabies, which is monitored by the rangers and treated by veterinarians. The reporting of health issues is extremely helpful; however, reports are not always followed to their fullest. When I was last in Bwindi a 5-month-old infant died and then her mother was found dead one month later. Neither body was collected for necropsy nor was a thorough investigation into the cause of death conducted. When I left a few days after the female’s death, 4 gorillas in the group were coughing. It is recommended that Bwindi managers devise a protocol for health reports and necropsy as one contagious illness could devastate the entire population. Long-term health reports on individuals should be kept and each death should result in an extensive necropsy which should include tissue collection and storage. (UWA may also want to consider donating each skeleton and skull to museums and/or universities in Uganda or other countries as a wealth of information is lost with each individual.)
A major health threat that has not received enough attention is the presence and traveling of army personnel in the area. Since the massacre, the army escorts all visits to the gorillas. Over 100 soldiers are stationed in the Nteko area. During my last field season, we witnessed over 75 soldiers on their journey to Nteko as they walked right through the Nkuringo group, which was spread across the most popular footpath right outside the park boundary. We were fortunate to be there with rangers who were able to make their passage safe. Many, if not all of the men in the army, have never seen a gorilla and it is frightening to think what would have happened if one of the gorillas had charged any of the gun-carrying soldiers. We also found them sleeping, cooking, urinating and defecating along the trail as we headed back to camp. Although I understand there is some training for army personnel in relation to gorillas, these troops had not been briefed. It is strongly recommend that all army personnel be trained or be led by UWA rangers before they travel in the park.

Within the Nkuringo area, conservation issues abound. When gorillas come out of the forest they threaten their own health as well as the health of the surrounding human population. By collecting data on when and why gorillas come outside of the park, we can equip local managers with information on how to reduce the occurrence. By examining the impacts of habituation for ecotourism, we can better protect and manage greatly endangered populations. We must always keep in mind that the benefits of tourism to the gorillas must always outweigh the costs.

Michele L. Goldsmith who spent 2 years studying the behavioral ecology of gorillas at Bai Hokou, Central African Republic. She is now Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Dept. of Anthropology at Dartmouth College. Since December 1996 she has been studying the behavioral ecology of sympatric gorillas and chimpanzees in Bwindi.

Acknowledgment: the National Geographic Society, UWA, the Ugandan National Council of Science and Technology, IGCP, ITFC (Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation)

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