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Are you curious about mountain gorilla trekking in Africa? Trekking to see mountain gorillas in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is not only the trip of a lifetime but also a sustainable ecotourism experience that benefits the gorillas and local communities. Guest author Kesi from Kesi to and Fro shares her expertise and tips for gorilla trekking in Uganda and DR Congo and positive benefits as a result of the tours. Make sure you stick around until the end to learn how to join Kesi on her next trek and ways you can support her. Let’s give her a warm welcome.
Mountain gorilla trekking is a sustainable ecotourism
Tours have environmental, economic, and social benefits
Join Kesi and her recommended guides on a tour for an unforgettable experience
Mountain Gorilla Trekking Sustainable Ecotourism
In 2018 I spent three months backpacking around eastern and central Africa, and it quickly became my favorite part of the world. One of the reasons I love traveling throughout this region is because there is ethical animal tourism. Wildlife tourism in Africa shows animals in their natural habitats without manipulation. For example, when I was in the Philippines, they offered swimming with whale sharks. The guides would feed the sharks to attract them to specific areas to guarantee that tourists would see the whale sharks. Whereas when I went on a whale shark excursion in Mozambique, it was not guaranteed that I would see the whale sharks since the guides don’t intervene with their natural habitats. In the African countries I’ve visited, animals are always respected and treated ethically. The best wildlife experience I’ve ever had is hands-down gorilla trekking.
Photo Cred: Kesi
I first went gorilla trekking in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it was surreal to spend an hour observing creatures that share many similar features to humans. I loved every minute of the experience and couldn’t believe I could get so close to animals in their natural environments. One of my favorite moments was when a baby gorilla walked over my feet! I was nervous initially, but I remained calmed and realized that the animals were habituated and comfortable with us humans. Gorilla trekking is an expensive endeavor, especially on a backpacker’s budget, but it is worth every penny because there are many benefits including environmental, economic, and social.
Environmental Benefits of Gorilla Trekking
First, let’s discuss the environmental benefits of mountain gorilla tourism. Mountain Gorillas are an endangered species and can only be found across Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Virunga National Park, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, and Volcanoes National Park in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gorilla permits are expensive ($400 in DRC, $700 in Uganda, and $1500 in Rwanda), yet the money is put to great use since it directly impacts the national parks. Over the years, the mountain gorilla population has slowly been increasing, and currently, there are over 1000 mountain gorillas. Tourism plays a role in increasing the mountain gorilla population because of the dollars raised from gorilla trekking tours.
Photo Cred: Kesi
Poaching poses one of the biggest threats to gorillas. Poachers can make money by illegally selling gorilla meat for food, bushmeat trade, and traditional medicines. Gorilla permits help support the rangers in these parks, which protect the animals from poachers. Being a ranger is a dangerous job, and they deserve fair compensation for their hard work. Unfortunately, in the DRC, it is common to hear about rangers dying in the park. When I went gorilla trekking in 2018, five rangers had been killed that same day. (Note: The area where tourists visit in Virunga is usually safe, the more dangerous parts are other parts of the park). Rangers in Uganda have several risks – like stepping on a poacher’s trap. Tourism helps deter poaching by supporting rangers.
The gorillas in Uganda are a great example of the conservation economy. For example, most of the gorilla lodges in Bwindi Impenetrable Park are established and owned by Ugandans, whereas foreigners own many safari companies in Kenya and Tanzania. When safari companies are locally owned, then that provides more spending power in the country. Also, gorilla trekking directly helps the local communities. If ten tourists go gorilla trekking in Bwindi, then at least 15 people from the community, ranging from porters to a lady selling refreshments, will benefit. Also, a percentage of the gorilla permit fees go to the local communities around the park. Besides gorilla trekking, people in the region can benefit from tourists by offering other activities, like a banana-beer tour or community walk after a day of trekking.
Photo cred: Kesi
Tourism provides an alternative way to make money for potential poachers. The decision to become a poacher is not made faintly. We discussed that being a ranger is a dangerous job, but a poacher also risks being killed by animals or rangers when they act in illicit manners. Many poachers feel like they do not have many opportunities, so the money from poaching seems attractive. Tourism surrounding gorilla trekking helps provide more opportunities for the local community, so instead of poaching, they can gain another job that helps with conservation.
Poverty is a global issue, and it’s at the center of development issues in Uganda. Yet, a conservation economy can help both the local communities and protect national parks.
Social Benefits of Gorilla Trekking
Gorilla trekking also allows people to explore new people and places. Gorilla Trekking is the main attraction for people to visit places like the DRC and Uganda. I would’ve never thought about visiting the DRC if it weren’t for gorillas. I heard all these horror stories about the DRC and how I should not visit because it is too dangerous. Luckily, I did not have any safety concerns while there and instead was welcomed by one of the most helpful people I’ve met in my five years of travel. I’m referring to John-Paul, who I met via Couchsurfing. He works as a DRC tour guide and is the best! If anyone plans to visit DRC, you must contact John-Paul because he is the warmest individual and will make sure you are cared for. He will find you the best prices for transportation and hotel. For me, traveling is all about the new connections I make with people, and I am happy the gorillas encouraged me to visit a new country so that I can meet someone like John-Paul and get to know his story as a Congolese man.
I recently ran a group trip to Uganda in the middle of the pandemic. There are many reasons why I decided to make this trip.
1) Partnering with Buutu Safaris, a company I am glad to support – Local companies are crucial in fighting poverty in Uganda as they create employment opportunities for the locals. Foreign companies continue to sustain the colonial extractive economy by taking the much-needed profit out of the country. This has led to poverty and its perpetuation in Uganda. Local companies, like Buutu Safari, are wholly invested in the growth and development as they create avenues for Ugandans to earn and rise out of poverty.
Why partner with local tourism companies, like Buutu Safari?
They reinvestment profits in Uganda.
Offer real long-term sustainable means of fighting poverty.
Help development as they earn and retain much-needed foreign exchange.
Have an unparalleled understanding of Uganda and share the complete picture as you learn about Uganda’s wildlife, culture, and history from a local perspective. Uganda cannot be experienced through just a wildlife prism but from a holistic view that appreciates the intricate relationship between the people, the wildlife, and Africa’s lands.
Encourage locally-led conservation solutions and create opportunities for Ugandans to take full responsibility for conservation. There has been a disconnect between biodiversity and Ugandans. However, the benefits from tourism arising incentivize locals to conserve biodiversity.
Buutu believes that the future of Uganda lay in creating companies to create employment for fellow citizens. Tourism provides a valuable starting point for Ugandans because inclusive conservation-based tourism gives the best foundation for building sustainable green economies of the future.
2) The Effects of COVID – COVID not only affects the health and economies of the human populations but has also impacted the conservation efforts of gorillas. With the loss of tourism revenue, anti-poaching activities have been diminishing, and more snares have been found harming gorillas. COVID has shown how vital tourism dollars can be.
My group was very well received since tourism has been down the past year. Our group size was 12 individuals, and we all left great tips for the rangers and porters and spent money in town at the bars and gift shops. Local people were so happy that we were there spending money that they hosted a party. I’m not joking! The whole village started playing music, drinking and dancing all night because of the money earned from my group. It was great to see their celebrations, but I also felt bad that they hadn’t had many foreign visitors last year.
COVID cases have been low in Uganda, yet it diminished tourism. I am ecstatic my group was a positive impact.
Recommended Tour Agencies
If you want to book a gorilla tour, I recommend reaching out to these two companies:
For Uganda: Buutu Safaris – This Ugandan family-owned tour company creates gorilla trekking tours in Uganda and Rwanda. This company is trustworthy and values creating job opportunities to support local communities.
WANT TO JOIN THE NEXT “FOLLOW THE FRO” GROUP TRIP?
I plan on running an additional group trip to Uganda in September 2022. If you are interested in signing up, please click here to fill out the interest form. Joining me on a tour you’ll engage in sustainable ecotourism, meet some like-minded people, and be taken care of by the best local tour guides.
Kesi Irvin is the travel blogger behind Kesi To and Fro. She graduated from the Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania. In 2015 she left her finance job in NYC with the plan to travel around the world for one year. However, her one-year around the world journey turned into a fully nomadic lifestyle. She now uses her blog to teach other adventurous souls how to sustain long-term travel and share ways to meet local people and have authentic cultural travel experiences abroad. Connect with her on Instagram, or Twitter, Facebook