Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is planning to start mock tourism on two newly habituated gorilla groups based in Bwinid Impenetrable National Park, in south west Uganda. This is in a bid to test their readiness to receive tourists. Habituation of the gorillas began in 2006, and for the last two years trackers have followed them on a daily basis to make them familiar and comfortable with human beings.
The habituation process also involves collecting data on each individual gorilla in the group especially with regard to feeding habits, personality traits, temperament, physical features, general health, grooming and mating habits, and how they react in different situations.
Mock tourism will be carried out over a period of four to six months. “It is meant to enable the gorillas adapt to seeing people of different colours, dress and smell because the people they see for the whole duration of the habituation process look, dress and smell the same,” said Eunice Mahoro, the Director of Tourism and Business Services at Uganda Wildlife Authority.
She explained said that mock tourism involves the systematic introduction of different people and objects to the gorillas by the trackers as a means of gauging their level of adaptation to having intruders in their space.
“Tourists come dressed in different colours, with different smells and different voices, and they carry all sorts of gadgets such as cameras and recorders, all of which are foreign to the gorillas. Mock tourism enables the gorillas to get used to such things. It is the final phase of the habituation process,” Mahoro further explained.
The two new groups are called Bitukura in Ruhija, Kabale District and Nsongi in Rushaga, Kisoro District. These will join Mubare, Rushegura, Habinyanja and Nkuringo to charm the tourists who pay $500 for each gorilla tracking permit. The permits are valid for just one visit.
Launching of the two new gorilla groups will address the problem of chronic shortages of gorilla tracking permits. Currently, only four gorilla groups are available for tourism in Uganda, and each is allowed only eight visitors per day, which makes a total of 32 permits per day. As a result, there has been difficulty in meeting the high demand for gorilla tracking permits especially during the heavy tourist seasons that stretch from June to September and from November to February. With the two new groups, the number of available permits per day will increase to 48.
The local communities in Kabale and Kisoro Districts will also greatly benefit from the additional tourism groups through increased access to a larger market for their goods and services such as handcrafts, cultural performances and general entertainment. The expanded gorilla tourism will also trigger improvements in infrastructure such as roads, health facilities, communications, transport and local business.
Gorilla tourism started in Uganda in 1994, and since then it has captured the hearts of many international tourists especially from Europe and America who are always excited to see the famed primates. The gorillas have also been the subject of many documentaries and films produced by reputable media and film companies.
A research that was carried out in 2006 discovered that the population of gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park had grown by 12 percent from 300 in 1997 to 340 by 2006. This represents over half of the total population of mountain gorillas remaining in the world. Gorillas are grossly endangered by poaching, commercial trade, disease and civil wars, and are therefore classified under Appendix 1 of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species of wild flora and fauna (CITES).