Text & Photos by Mike Long of Gondwana Ecotours
The story begins when we try to define “ecotourism,” a notoriously fickle subject. With no legal definition, ecotourism can and does take almost any form. It’s clear from even a cursory glance that the breadth of ecotourism means an equal breadth of quality and impact.
Swimming with whale sharks, hiking the Appalachian Trail, even visiting an animal rehabilitation center: all of these could technically be defined as ecotourism. A number of resorts with a golf courses — which are infamous for their wastefulness of water among other environmental issues — also claim to be “ecolodges.”
This can be problematic, because even something that is actually harmful to the environment can still present itself as ecotourism.
At its core, true ecotourism can be defined as a form of travel that is nature-centric and positively impacts the ecosystem that is being visited. This second point is crucial, though is difficult to measure.Sadly, true #ecotourism has essentially lost its meaning. Here's why. Click To Tweet
Ecotourism can be a tough sell. While most people would agree that living with — or at least getting out into — nature is important, many do not prioritize ecotourism as an expenditure. Ecotourism operators, with the goal of attracting travelers to unique locations and positively impacting the region, have to develop some pretty awe-inspiring natural experiences to grab people’s attention. Going to a national park might be enticing to some; but going to a national park with endangered species of colorful birds, big cats, grey wolves, or other unusual animals that you can see first-hand is even more enticing.
It’s important we also consider our impact. If these close-contact experiences are not moderated, the wildlife, human visitors and the environment can be compromised.
The same can be true for highly facilitated interactions with animals, and may be even more insidious in nature in terms of operation. For example, certain animal sanctuaries don’t actually practice the release of rehabilitated animals into the wild as they preach, but instead keep them to entice visitors. Because of this, it’s smart to learn about good practices to look for.
Does Rwanda Hold The Answer?
There is no shortage of examples of ways that animal tourism doesn’t work. Carefully planned ecotourism asks the noble question: how can we promote interest and appreciation in wildlife and wild spaces to ultimately achieve conservation?
Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park may hold the answer, and acts as a model for how ecotourism can work. As visitors have become able to pay for a permit to go trekking with the highly endangered mountain gorillas, the benefits appear to be far-reaching. Not only is the desired goal of saving this endangered species being fulfilled, but it’s benefitting Rwanda at large.Does #Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park hold the answer to true #ecotourism? Click To Tweet
How Rwanda Is Helping Gorillas
In the last several years, the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, and to a lesser extent, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, have been getting press. These gorillas, the largest primate on the planet, number less than 1,000. Poaching has unfortunately gone unmitigated despite the critical numbers the mountain gorillas have diminished to. Mountain gorilla meat is considered a delicacy among the wealthy, and superstitious beliefs such as the magical and medicinal properties of a gorilla hand have driven the black market for the body parts of these animals.
Additionally, as logging continues in their habitat, not only do the gorillas experience a dwindling region in which to roam, but poachers have very easy means of accessing otherwise unreachable parts of the forest. Like all ecosystems, the pieces are interdependent, so the loss of mountain gorillas would have rippling effects through the biome.
But now, as the nascent tourism industry of Rwanda has begun to grow, the gorillas are turning into spokesanimals for all the country’s flora and fauna, and a model for ecotourism programs around the world. As travelers have begun to visit the gorillas, the relationship of the local communities to these animals has changed, along with their sense of the value of the creature.
Now, slowly but surely, an ecotourism industry is making visiting the mountain gorillas a more profitable enterprise than hunting them. In this way, many poachers are actually beginning to find employment as park workers, a huge victory for conservation.
Seeing Mountain Gorillas In The Wild
So what is a gorilla trek, exactly? Once your permit has been secured you make your way to Volcanoes National Park in northwest Rwanda. Here, you’ll meet with the other travelers in your group — group size is limited to six so as not to over-habituate or overwhelm the gorillas — and a National Park Ranger briefs you on which family you are going to visit, giving you some background information about who they are, their history, and their personalities.
The gorillas are nomadic and wild, so you need a ranger and trackers to help you find them. Once you depart, there’s a beautiful stroll through Rwandan farmland where locals are working, chatting and playing. Eventually, you’ll reach a stone wall that denotes the border of the park, and into the thick, fragrant bamboo forest you go. You’ll hike anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes until your group approaches the gorilla family.
It’s now that you truly become enchanted with nature’s magic.
You’ll likely be startled about how similar they are to us. The massive silverbacks sit and eat thoughtfully (they even sing while the eat!), the babies spin in circles and roll around like goofy kids, and the big brothers are sometimes jerks to their little brothers.
The national park service closely regulates the amount of time humans are allowed to be near the gorillas to about one hour per day in total. In this way, gorillas have a balanced relationship to humans: not overly eager or friendly with them, but not one of outright fear, either. The park service mandates a seven-meter (~23-foot) distance minimum for visitors, which is kept in place for the safety of both guests and gorillas.
While visiting, you become absorbed in the daily lives of these magnificent creatures, and in doing so, help save them. As they run, play, and keep moving through the forest, you and the group follow along.
How Gorillas Are Helping Rwanda
Like any good relationship, helping the gorillas means they are, in turn, helping the people. As the infrastructure grows around gorilla trekking, the benefits of ecotourism are slowly beginning to expand to other parts of the country. This is an important part of why this model is so great: Not only does gorilla trekking save this endangered species (as well as others), but it helps the local economy.
Small lodges and restaurants have a chance to open up to support the increased traffic generated by the ecotourism. Le Bambou Lodge, for example, is one of many lodges that has been able to open since gorilla trekking began, providing a form of income in a part of Rwanda where those opportunities might be limited.
Many artists are now finding ways to supplement their largely agricultural income by selling their works in or near the park. As more and more travelers come to see the gorillas, many of them are extending their stays to explore all that Rwanda has to offer. A burgeoning coffee tourism industry allows travelers to get a glimpse (and a taste) into the highly-regarded coffee- world of Rwanda. Inema Art Collective in Kigali is a great place to stop in and see some of East Africa’s most progressive, exciting artists at work. Nyungwe National Park in the south is home to some of the limited numbers of endangered Chimpanzees. Wildlife lovers can enter the forests with a guide to find them as well.
This model of ecotourism stands out as a blueprint that others can follow for a number of reasons. One of the primary reasons is that the treks themselves are carried out by rangers and employees of Volcanoes National Park, and no one else. In many cases of ecotourism, too much competition can create a desire among operators to increasingly ratchet-up the experience and their numbers.
This has been exceptionally true in the recent trend in whale-shark ecotourism in Mexico, and to a lesser extent, the Philippines. In either situation, there is no jurisdictional or regulatory body to impose restrictions and generally oversee the ethics of ecotourism operators. This has been especially true in Mexico, where the proximity to Cancun has provided a huge base of visitors and has created a vehicle for dramatic growth of the industry. With no regulations, many ecotourism outfits, despite having arguably good intentions, are increasingly invading the whale-shark’s waters, feeding the sharks, and letting guests get within distances that disturb the sharks. Additionally, the sheer high-volume of people is a major disturbance to the breeding creatures.How do you define #ecotourism? Here's one model that's working in #Rwanda. Click To Tweet
Rwanda’s gorilla treks stand in stark contrast to this free-for- all, where group size, duration, and proximity are all closely monitored and controlled to ensure that the gorillas are not disturbed by the experience. The classic result of the “tragedy of the commons” is avoided in Rwanda, and hopefully similar protections can be put in place for other ecotourism systems.
One of the other major takeaways from Rwanda’s model of ecotourism is again, dependent on the industry being implemented by local authorities. While non-local organizations can offer trips like Gondwana Ecotours, the implementation is still carried out by local authorities which means most of the money that travelers spend is going where it needs to go.
One of the more insidious aspects of ecotourism can come in the form of monetary diversion to communities that have nothing to do with the experience. Like the Galapagos, Rwanda’s ecotourism is carried out locally so the economic benefits stay at home.
The mountain gorilla conservation program of Rwanda is perhaps the prime example of ecotourism. By placing value on the natural world, travelers can use their presence and money to make a vote: a vote that says yes, we care about protecting the planet and conserving it for the future. Ecotourism has laid a foundation for preservation of the past, as well as a road to the future. For travelers looking to have a once-in- a-lifetime experience that supports the local wildlife and economy, meeting the gorillas in Rwanda is a great place to start.
Epicure & Culture Editor’s Note:
When I asked Mr. Long, the author of the above piece, his opinion on whether tourists should be concerned about the effects of human interaction making the gorillas less wild, he responded: “While having Gorillas lose a certain amount of their natural wariness to humans may or may not have the unintentional side-effect of making them more easily hunted, I would posit that:
A) Most gorillas are hunted by way of trap, not necessarily direct human interaction.
B) Before ecotourism became an enterprise in Rwanda, poachers had already dwindled the population down to under 1000. I think the argument that they would become “more huntable” due to this interaction, while perhaps true in a sense, is invalidated because they most certainly would have been hunted to extinction without intervention. Again, as more poachers are able to find work within the park, that trend is being slowly reversed. Obviously, not all poachers are going to find work in the parks, but many will, and is infrastructure around the park and in Rwanda at large grows, ideally, the need to take illegal actions to support oneself would be diminished.”
Indeed; meeting the gorillas in Rwanda is a great place to start supporting local wildlife and economy and working to put an end to the poaching of mountain gorillas and other wildlife.Have you visited #Rwanda's famous mountain #gorillas? Here's why you should! Click To Tweet
About Mike Long
Mike Long is the operations manager for Gondwana Ecotours and an avid traveler. He enjoys growing food and researching food politics and sustainability. He currently resides in New Orleans.
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