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More Gorilla Groups Will Be Habituated in Bwindi

More Gorilla Groups Will Be Habituated in Bwindi


Despite the serious concerns of many experts, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is planning to habituate two more gorilla families in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This will bring the total number of habituated groups there to 6.

UWA will then earn even more revenue from gorilla tourism, which currently contributes up to 70% of UWA’s revenue. UWA has been partially funded by the World Bank during recent years and will now have to find alternatives for this funding – and the expansion of gorilla tourism is the most promising possibility.

The groups that will be habituated range near Ruhija (this group is already partially habituated) and Rushaga. UWA estimates that it will take two years before they can be visited by tourists.
There are several reasons why the habituation of more groups is regarded as problematic. One problem that has often been discussed is the transmission of diseases. In some cases, it has been proven already that diseases were transmitted from humans to gorillas. The more gorillas are habituated, the more this danger increases.

Another problem is the effect of habituation on the gorillas’ behavior. As several studies have shown, their behaviour is changed by the contact with visitors. The larger a group, the greater is the effect. Each of the habituated gorilla groups is already visited by 8 tourists per day, which is considered a critical number – fewer would be safer. It is not yet clear what effects the altered behavior will have on the gorilla population in the long term. Moreover, habituated gorillas do not stay away from humans like wild gorillas do – for example, they raid crops in the fields of the local population, and this results in conflicts that have already led to the killing of at least one mountain gorilla.

Discussion on Habituation Plans

Recently a number of press articles and email discussions have covered the potential plan to habituate new gorilla groups for tourism in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. However, as of going to press, habituation has not yet started, pending a review of the issue.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is rightly concerned about finances with the upcoming end of World Bank funding that has provided support for UWA operations. It is reasonable to expect the authority to explore means of supplementing its income to compensate for the end of this funding, including the possibility of expanding its mountain gorilla tourism programme, which has been providing over 50% of the authority’s revenues in recent years. However, rather than rushing into the habituation of a new group, UWA has called a meeting of its research and management staff and advisors at the field level to discuss the issue and to make an informed recommendation to UWA headquarters. This field meeting will take place in the last week of May 2007.

The meeting will be attended by field staff as well as members of the regional advisory panel on mountain gorilla management issues (including tourism) called the Gorilla Management Technical Advisory Committee (GMTAC). The GMTAC was formed as an outcome of regional meetings and was tasked with providing input to the three protected area authorities based on technical debate among people with scientific and management expertise. A number of members of this group have been invited to the May meeting to provide input on the Bwindi habituation issue.
The GMTAC will use this meeting as an opportunity to test and refine a tool it is developing, called the Habituation Impact Analysis (HIA). The HIA will be a decision-tree model to be used as a guide for addressing the wide range of questions and issues related to the cost-benefit analysis of habituation, whether for research or for tourism. It will guide stakeholders in analysing available information, and in identifying information gaps or alternate opportunities for addressing needs.

The recommendations from the May meeting will be forwarded to UWA headquarters and the UWA board for consideration. Through the results of the May meeting, and followed up with a concerted effort by UWA technical staff and their NGO advisors, we hope to be able to lead the decision/policy makers through a rational analysis of the costs and benefits of habituating additional groups.

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