One of the biggest news to hit the African headlines in recent months is Ellen Degeneres, the talk show queen, and her wife Portia De Rossi visiting Rwanda and going on a gorilla trekking expedition. While ticking off a bucket list item was one of their biggest motivations, raising awareness on the need to protect mountain Gorillas against threats such as poaching, population increase and destruction of their natural habitats was key to their visit.
Ecotourism has been a recent term used within the tourism industry; a word that used to define tourism that is nature-centric and at the same time positively impacting the ecosystem that is being visited. And nowhere else has ecotourism been successful as it has been in Rwanda Volcanic National Park. As more visitors get their trekking licenses, the benefits have been far reaching; not only has it benefited the Gorillas, but Rwanda as a country in general.
During the last global survey in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda conducted in 2005, only 480 Gorillas were found. However, in the just concluded census as of March 2018, the number has increased to an incredible 604. This means that there are now one thousand mountain gorillas in the wild – the highest the population has been in decades. The rise has been as a result of the work of charities and the three countries where the mountain Gorillas two main habitats are based.
The progress made in the conservation of Gorillas thus growing their numbers can be attributed to the great interest generated by gorilla trekking expedition. The mountain Gorillas have turned to be the official spokes animals for Rwanda’s Flora and Fauna as well as a model for ecotourism efforts across the globe. As travelers continue 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.
So what is the Gorilla trekking expedition really like?
Human access to the 62-square-mile Volcanic National Park is severely restricted, with only 80 visitors permitted to take one of the guided gorilla treks each day. Groups of up to eight are allowed to spend one tightly monitored hour with one of the families.
There are currently seven main groups that can be tracked in Rwanda; the Susa, Sabinyo, Amahoro, Umubano, Hirwa, Kwitonda and Group Thirteen.
The groups vary in number from around 9 to 39 individuals and all currently have at least one silver-back male. Trek to see them and you’ll be introduced by your expert trackers and guides to one of the fully-habituated families of mountain gorillas and you can stay with them for an awe-inspiring hour, often crouching just a few feet away, whilst the gorillas go about their daily lives.
Hikes in the mountains can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours plus, depending on the family allocated to your group and their location. The journey back can take just as long, but you are often carried along by the euphoria you feel at seeing the gorillas. Porters are available to help carry backpacks and cameras, as well as helping you with your footing along your hike which can be hard work, but well worth it.
Make the most of your trip to Rwanda with a moving visit to the Genocide Memorial and after a good night’s rest at Kigali Serena Hotel, take a 4-hour scenic drive to Lake Kivu Serena Hotel. Here, you will rest for one night before embarking on the Gorilla trek early the next morning.
You’ll likely be startled about how similar they are to us. The massive silver-backs 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.
While visiting you are likely to get absorbed in their daily activities and as a result will most likely be drawn to contribute to efforts aimed towards further saving their species.
How Gorillas are helping Rwanda
Much like a good relationship, the growth in gorilla trekking has in turn led to the development of infrastructure and the benefits of this is reaching to the local communities making Rwanda the perfect model of what eco-tourism can do to a country. Tourism has provided jobs to the local people both directly and indirectly; the rangers, porters, the artisans selling their products to the tourists all beneit directly from gorilla trekking. In addition, the coming up of hotel such as Lake Kivu Serena Hotel and Kigali Serena Hotel which serve as the perfect starting base for the trekking further hire people at the units thus creating employment.
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.