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Bwindi UNESCO World Heritage Site

Celebrating 15 Years of Bwindi as a National Park

Celebrating 15 Years of Bwindi as a National Park

Bwindi UNESCO World Heritage Site

Since 1993, small groups of tourists have been taken to see habituated groups of gorillas. Tourists pay a good deal of money (currently US$ 360 per person per one hour visit, in addition to the park entrance fees) for the privilege, and this generates considerable revenue for UWA, as well as bringing additional money into the local economies. Currently four groups of gorillas are habituated for tourism, with a maximum number of 8 tourists visiting per day. At full capacity of 11,680 foreign tourists per year, this translates into a maximum of US$ 4.2 million annual income.

While gorilla tourism has been generally regarded as a great success as a conservation strategy in generating revenues and providing financial justification for conservation, we do not yet know all the impacts on the gorillas themselves. Consider that each group of gorillas could be visited by nearly 3,000 different people each year. Evidence from the Virungas, where gorilla tourism has been underway in Rwanda and Democratic Republic of the Congo for over 20 years, indicates that groups visited by tourists have at least as many immatures as unhabituated groups and have not suffered any serious impacts. Indeed, the close monitoring received by the gorillas that are followed each day for tourism or research probably brings significant benefits, in terms of protection and veterinary care. Nonetheless, gorillas are likely to be susceptible to human diseases, and recent research has shown that the presence of people does have an impact on their behaviour, with reduced rates of feeding and frequent responses to peoples’ actions. We still know very little about the effects of these threats, although ongoing research in Bwindi is further investigating the impacts of gorilla tourism and habituation.

Another benefit to the local communities from tourism is revenue sharing, in which a portion of the UWA revenues are shared with local people to support specific community development projects. In 2006, approximately US$ 80,000 will be divided among the 21 parishes surrounding Bwindi. This has an important impact in demonstrating the value of conserving Bwindi and its gorilla population to the people living alongside the gorillas.

As already mentioned, the first forest conservation trust fund in Africa was set up in southwest Uganda with funding from GEF, USAID and the Royal Dutch government. MBIFCT’s goal is to strengthen conservation though direct support to park management and applied research, and by relieving pressure on the park and providing alternative benefits to local communities through support of small scale development projects. As it works with local communities, the trust is a constant reminder to people that the benefits which they are receiving have been made possible because of the existence of the parks, and the support the international community is willing to give to their conservation.

Research is another import component of conservation by providing in-formation to make informed management decisions. Research conducted by the ITFC is addressing some of the key issues for park management, including assessments of the sustainability of multiple use and tourism programs, studying key issues for the conservation and management of the gorilla population, and improving our understanding of the relationship between conservation and development in the area.

More academically based research on the ecology and behaviour of the Bwindi gorillas is showing that they are a unique population and emphasizes the diversity of gorilla behavioural ecology.
In conclusion, Bwindi has been a pioneering example of different conservation and sustainable use strategies, but can it be regarded as a success? Do we know if the future of the forest is assured? Certainly, the outlook for Bwindi is much better now than 15 years ago. A gorilla census in 1997 found 300 gorillas in Bwindi, which is approximately the same number as there were when the park was gazetted in 1991. The population increased to approximately 320 gorillas in 2002 and a census being conducted in April-July 2006 will show if the population has increased even further. Surveys of the knowledge and attitude of local people in recent years have shown a definite improvement in support for conservation of the forest among local people. Despite active law enforcement efforts, however, illegal activities continue and many people still feel that the costs of conservation outweigh the benefits. While the gorilla population is stable, if not increasing, there is a significant area of habitat in the park which they do not yet occupy. Crop-raiding, including by gorillas, continues to be a bone of contention between park and local communities. Clearly, many problems remain to be solved.

Given the small size of Bwindi, its immense biological richness and significance, the history of disturbance to which it has already been subjected, and the intense pressure from surrounding people, we must be exceedingly careful in how we manage the resources it contains. We clearly cannot ignore the interests of the surrounding human population, and conserving the forests without their support would be almost impossible. Despite all the different initiatives which have made great progress in recent years in increasing support among local communities for conservation of the forest, we still have some way to go before we can claim to have found this balance and can rest assured that its future is safe. While there may be room for cautious optimism in Bwindi, there is no room for complacency.

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