TOURISM TAKES A HIT
In parks such as Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, the mountain gorilla trekking industry has been extremely successful. As well as bringing income to rural areas, the safeguarding of their habitat has also enabled the mountain gorilla population to grow; in 2018, the subspecies’ conservation status improved from critically endangered to endangered.
When tourism stopped, the effects were felt almost immediately.
“The first five months were disastrous,” says Johannes Refisch, coordinator of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Great Apes Survival Partnership. In Rwanda, where permits cost $1,500 per international tourist, Refisch says there was a loss of $120,000 a day from those fees alone. And that’s not considering transfers, accommodation, guiding and porter services, tipping, or the souvenirs tourists might buy.
For a great many people, that loss of income translated very quickly into hunger, which in turn led to more subsistence poaching. In 2020, a gorilla was killed for the first time in nearly 10 years in Uganda, after poachers accidentally crossed paths with a silverback in Bwindi. There isn’t enough data to accurately gauge how much subsistence poaching has increased across the continent, but experts agree that it likely has increased around great ape protected sites, sometimes enabled by reduced law enforcement at sites with less funding.
Uganda is still only seeing 10% of its usual tourism revenue, says Kalema-Zikusoka. Its wildlife authority, usually fully sustained by tourism income, has had to turn to NGOs to fund activities such as security patrols in the parks. To ensure that people can at least eat and won’t fall back on subsistence poaching, CTPH started a Ready to Grow program that has already delivered fast-growing seedlings to 1,000 households around national parks.
Sanctuaries that rely on tourism have been heavily affected, too. In Kenya, Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, part of Ol Pejeta Conservancy, closed to visitors and researchers for a year to avoid infection. The closure and the lack of tourists “led to severe loss of revenue, up to 85%,” says head of conservation Samuel Mutisya. As a result, salaries were cut and some non-essential operating costs were suspended.
The key to safely resuming tourism is vaccines. CTPH is encouraging the wildlife authority in Uganda to adopt mandatory vaccines for tourists, once a greater proportion of the world has been vaccinated.
Martha Robbins, head of the gorilla research group at the Max Planck Institute, agrees with a vaccine requirement. “To enter a lot of African countries you need to show a yellow fever vaccination,” she says. “So, in my opinion, it’s not outrageous to say you need to show a COVID vaccination in order to see wild great apes, especially given the risk of disease transmission.”
Rwanda has prioritized tourism workers and conservationists in its vaccine rollout, so crucial are the gorillas to its economy. Kalema-Zikusoka has been promoting the same approach in Uganda, and in June several tourism and conservation groups, including the Uganda Wildlife Authority, launched a vaccination drive in Kampala. But in rural areas, they’ve been battling vaccine hesitancy coupled with practical issues, such as people living far from health centers. One solution being discussed is mobile clinics that can come to the villages.
Not all countries have enough access to vaccines to take such measures, however; Africa as a continent has administered just 1.68% of the world’s vaccine doses. “Redressing this global imbalance is an essential part of the solution,” says Magdalena Bermejo, who has been studying western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) around Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo since 1994.