This month there was yet another disastrous environmental report. Wildlife populations around the world are practically in free-fall. I could spend these next few paragraphs joining the chorus of those sounding the alarms, but I’m going to try something different. I’m going to try to offer hope.
The WWF’s Living Planet Report doesn’t give much to celebrate. By its measures, worldwide wildlife populations have plunged 69 percent since 1970. The situation is nothing short of a catastrophe in South America where the numbers are down 94 percent. But even in North America and Europe — continents that are supposedly progressive — the declines are still in the double digits.
If you care about wildlife and biodiversity, the report makes it clear we are not doing enough. In fact, the report makes it look like we aren’t doing anything. But if that’s what you focus on, I fear that we will never do anything. It’s hard to be motivated to do the difficult work if you have no hope that it will make a difference.
With that in mind, I’d like to talk about the mountain gorilla, which, while still endangered, is a rare success story. I recently spent time with gorillas in their rainforest home on the upper reaches of the Virunga Mountains on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Today there are just over 1,000 gorillas in the wild between the Virungas and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. That’s about double their numbers in the early 1980s when there were so few left that scientists wondered if the species could be saved.
There wasn’t just one single factor that pushed the gorillas to the brink of extinction. There almost never is.
Habitat loss is a major factor. As human populations swell, gorilla habitat becomes people habitat. Farms expanded toward the summits of the mountains.
Poaching was another. As soon as westerners learned of the mountain gorillas, they began capturing or killing them for science or as trophies.
And then there’s war. Militias and refugees would take cover in the gorillas’ forest. The forest became a battleground.
Undoubtedly the biggest driver of the gorillas’ recovery is tourism. Every day, dozens of people like me travel to the remote mountains in hopes of spending just one hour with the rare and elusive animals. The majestic animals have incredible value alive in their natural habitat. Lest there be any doubt about that, just look at the currency. Gorillas — not political leaders — are featured prominently on some of the banknotes.
Even young children are aware the local economy is now gorilla-based. As our Land Cruiser inched slowly over the boulder-strewn dirt road toward the trailhead, children — as young as 4 or 5 — would gather alongside, waving and yelling at us, “You make us proud.”
The gorillas have a substantial economic impact. Because they are scarce and visitation is strictly limited, basic economics have driven the cost of a one-hour permit as high as $1,500. The park uses some of the money to preserve habitat, provide veterinary care and hire rangers to keep poachers away. The federal government gets some to provide general services to citizens. And, perhaps most critically, some goes to directly the local communities. By sharing the wealth, most people there are motivated to do what they can to keep the animals safe. That’s in addition to the jobs that are tied to gorilla tourism, from hotel staff and cooks to guides, drivers and porters.
While ecotourism saved mountain gorillas from extinction, I know it’s not a perfect solution to our wildlife crisis. What do you do about endangered animals that are not photogenic?
I don’t even think it’s fair to the gorillas. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t have to put on a daily show for visitors to earn their survival.
We did not appear to annoy them or disrupt their feeding activities, but our visits do pose some risk to their health. Genetically speaking, we’re very close relatives so we could theoretically pass them diseases that they don’t have the immunity to fight.
All visitors must be vaccinated against Covid and pass a PCR test administered the day before their visit to show they’re free of the virus. Rangers and tour operators are tested every few days. Everyone also has to wear fresh masks in the presence of the gorillas. This minimizes the chance of spreading disease, but that we’re subjecting endangered creatures to even that amount of risk is telling.
I also can’t help but think about whether this is truly fair to the people who live there. Is it fair that a nature photographer whose home is 10,000 miles away can enjoy being in the presence of these magnificent animals, but people who live at the base of the mountain never get to see them because they can’t afford the fee? I don’t think it is, but I don’t have a better solution.
For now, all I can be is thankful that we seem to have found a solution to bring one group of animals back from the brink of extinction. I hope it inspires us to find answers to save others. We have shown it can be done.