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Gorilla Trek Solo

Impact of Tourism on the Behaviour of Mountain Gorillas

Impact of Tourism on the Behaviour of Mountain Gorillas

Gorilla Trek Solo

Tourism based on gorilla viewing is an important strategy in the conservation of mountain gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. High fees are charged for such visits, generating considerable revenue for the Governments. Much has been written about the ecology and behaviour of gorillas, but an area that has received little attention is the impact of tourism on mountain gorilla behaviour.

A recent study assessed the impact of tourism on the behaviour of mountain gorillas and evaluated the possible influence of ranger guides, trackers and tourists. The activity budget (feeding, movement pattern, responses to humans and social interactions within the group) was measured before, during and after tourist visits. In addition, rangers and tourists were evaluated on gorilla rules and regulations during briefing time before the tourists entered the park and while with gorillas in the field to assess their actions/behaviours.


The habituation process itself certainly has an impact on the gorillas and is perhaps the most stressful time for them. Regular visits by people disrupt normal gorilla behaviour in various ways, even after the habituation process has been completed. Any behavioural changes caused by tourist visits represent an undesirable disturbance to the natural behaviour patterns.
There is a high risk of disease transmission to gorillas and vice versa, and of causing behavioural disturbance and stress to gorillas and injuries to tourists and ranger guides since most of the rules for the visits and their justifications are not well explained to the tourists by the ranger guides, and are frequently broken while the visitors are with the gorillas. The ranger guides themselves are not well conversant with some of the gorilla rules and why they were put in place. The tourists tend not to obey most of the rules while with gorillas.

There was a statistical difference in the activity budget of the Mubare group before, during and after tourist visits. The gorillas spent more time with visual scanning when tourists, ranger guides and trackers were present, and we found a significant negative correlation between the proportion of glances and tourist-gorilla distance. Moreover, there was a significant difference of in-group cohesion before, during, and after tourist visits. During the visits, there were on average more gorillas around the silverback; this indicates greater cohesion. The presence of tourists caused increased travel, but there was no significant correlation between the daily path length of the Mubare and Habinyanja gorilla groups and the number of tourists.

Tourists’, rangers’ and trackers’ actions/behaviours (such as approaching the gorillas to less than 7 m, clearing vegetation, making noise, pointing a finger, and belch vocalisation) cause behavioural disturbances to gorillas such as fleeing, moving off with food in the mouth, charging, flattening vegetation, and shielding their heads. Self-directed behaviours such as self-grooming and scratching occurred more frequently during tourist visits than before and after them. These are indicators of emotional arousal and stress. Indices of high behavioural disturbance should be monitored; in particular, any fleeing observed during visits should act as a warning to guides and tourists not to follow the animals further.

Rangers’ compliance with the rules and regulations that prevent disease transmission to gorillas were scored as “fair”; for those rules that minimize behavioural disturbance and stress, and prevent the risk of injury for tourists, they were scored as poor.


The results suggest that some rules need to be changed, and further rules need to be added, and there needs to be much stricter enforcement of the rules and regulations that concern the minimization of behavioural disturbances and stress, and preventing diseases and risks of injury to humans. This requires independent supervision and periodical monitoring at all levels of tourist operations by a well-trained and motivated staff.

The one-hour limit per visit per day rule should be maintained because tourist visits have an impact on gorilla activity patterns. In particular, less feeding is a strong justification for maintaining this limit.

Tourists were frequently between the gorillas and rangers, and this requires one more rule to be added in the current list: “Tourists should not stay between gorillas and ranger guides or trackers”. This would be enforced to avoid the risks of injury to tourists and to minimize behavioural disturbances in the gorillas.

Ranger guides and trackers should be trained on visitor handling and on gorilla rules and regulations and their justifications, as well as on gorilla behaviours. Policy issues on tourism operations in protected areas should also be explained to them.

Ranger guides and trackers should stop clearing vegetation with a panga, pointing fingers, making noise and making vocalisations such as the belch vocalisation or mimicking chest-beats so that tourists can photograph the gorillas face on, as this disturbs the gorillas.

To enforce gorilla rules, tourists should be fined and ranger guides punished for every rule broken; this can be policed by the Warden for tourism. After the first warning, cameras should be confiscated when used with a flash in the presence of the gorillas. The issue of corruption must also be dealt with by the management authority, no matter how strict and effective the rules are; if there are ranger and tracker guides who are tempted after tourist visits to break the rules for financial gain (so called tips), then the rules are essentially impotent.

Gorilla rule number 9 (minimum distance of 5 m between gorillas and tourists) should be changed to “minimum distance of 7 m between gorillas and tourists” because the gorillas reacted less if the distance was 7 m. Even at this distance, the gorillas are clearly visible for the observers. This was also recommended by Jaco Homsy in 1999 to reduce the risk of disease transmission.
The existing gorilla tourist brochure should be improved to include all rules and regulations with their justifications, and should be distributed to tour operators and the booking desk at UWA (Uganda Wildlife Authority) headquarters and be given to tourists prior to the visits. This will prepare the tourists before briefing time at the park. The brochure should include fines for each rule that is broken.

The tourism warden should ask tourists verbally or through a feedback form how the visits were conducted, to see if the rules were broken and to assess the quality of interpretation, and of the guides’ explanations of the rules and their justifications. This ensures the monitoring of rangers and trackers during tourist visits and exposes areas of tourism operations that need to be improved through training.

Finally, meetings of ranger guides, trackers and the park management should be held once a month to enforce and monitor the rules and management. Through these meetings, the management will come to know the problems the rangers and trackers face during tourist visits and make suggestions for improvements.

Credits to Fortunate Muyambi who did research for MSc in Environment and Natural Resources Management at Makerere University Institute of Environment and Natural Resources Management. The research was funded by the Compton Foundation, USA. The Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC) supervised this research work.

Fortunate Muyambi also worked with Uganda Wildlife Authority as a warden in Research and Monitoring in Bwindi/Mgahinga Conservation Area for 2 years, and is currently the Field Project Coordinator of the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund-Uganda.

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