Gorilla watching & Covid-19

Gorilla watching has always had one golden rule: don’t go if you feel ill. The DNA of gorillas is so close to ours that they can catch our illnesses. And instead of getting the sniffles, gorillas can get knocked for six by human-borne respiratory infections. Diseases that jump between humans and animals (or zoonotic infections) have caused fatal outbreaks in wild mountain gorilla families in the past.

Until recently, Covid-19 transmission from humans to gorillas was just a theory. Now we know for sure: eight gorillas in San Diego Zoo Safari Park tested positive for Covid-19 in January 2021. Experts like the Gorilla Doctors, who work in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have expanded their usual testing to watch out for signs of coronavirus. While it’s too soon to say how wild gorillas will react to the virus, there’s concern for the vulnerable animals who, until recently, encountered tourists almost daily.

So where does this leave gorilla safaris? Gorilla trekking is vital to the long-term survival of mountain gorillas and the communities that live near them. Uganda, Rwanda and their neighbours have exceptional conservation practices in place to protect gorillas, and rely on income from tourism to sustain them.

Rwanda has already introduced mandatory Covid-19 testing before trekking. However, it’s clear that we also need stricter rules when visiting gorillas in their habitat. We have updated our gorilla watching guidelines using recommendations from national parks, conservationists and a new paper by Morgan Mingle, a graduate student in the Sustainability degree program at Harvard Extension, who assessed the risk of Covid-19 transmission from tourists to mountain gorillas.

Gorilla watching guidelines for 2021/22

Get vaccinated from Covid-19. Get all other recommended jabs, too, including yellow fever, tetanus, hepatitis A and B, polio and MMR. The flu vaccine isn’t always on the recommended list, but there’s no such thing as being too cautious when protecting gorillas. Don’t go if you feel ill. Bring face masks and wear them properly. The World Health Organisation shows you how. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) strongly recommends wearing a N95 mask, which filters almost all airborne particles. Cloth face masks are more environmentally friendly, but aren’t held up to as exacting scientific standards. They’ll do if you can’t get hold of a N95, however, which can be in short supply. Wash your hands thoroughly before trekking. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Take distancing seriously. Scrap the 2m rule. In fact, scrap the previous 5-7m rule that applied to gorilla trekking and stay at least 10m away from gorillas. That’s a bit more than the length of a bus. Over 60 percent of gorillas have lost their fear of humans, so it’s up to you to keep that distance (which is almost painfully tricky when you have baby gorillas gambolling towards you). Speak with your guide if you’re concerned that your group is getting too close. Turn away from the gorillas if you need to cough or sneeze. You might be asked to do a PCR Covid-19 test before trekking. Rwanda has introduced mandatory PCR tests and requires a negative Covid-19 result within 72 hours before trekking. With most travel on hold, there are growing numbers of people after a limited number of gorilla trekking permits. Your time will come… even if that time is 2023 or beyond! Book well ahead and think of it as an exciting adventure to look forward to. And remember that permit limits are great for gorillas, giving them time away from the visitors knocking at their door.

Why should we follow stricter guidelines?

After trauma, respiratory illness is the biggest cause of death in wild gorillas. Stricter gorilla watching guidelines are a very positive thing. They were needed before the pandemic, and we hope that they’ll last long after the pandemic.

Local wildlife authorities and our gorilla watching specialists strongly discourage trekkers from getting too close, but groups don’t always stick to the rules. Studies show that 98 percent of gorilla treks observed in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda didn’t keep to the 7m rule emphasised by park rangers. Eighty-three percent came within 3m – initiated by the gorillas 60 percent of the time, but at other times it was for a good photo op. Viruses aside, we’re not sure we’d want to get that close to a 160kg silverback… Over 30 percent of the tours extended the restricted “gorilla hour” by 10 minutes or more.
Tourists are particularly prone to being carriers of Covid-19. Self-analysing whether we feel ill isn’t enough of a safety precaution.
On average, even if a tour follows the rules, gorillas used to humans will come into close quarters with 7-23 people every day. From what we now know about Covid-19, social distance (that phrase of 2020), duration and the number of interactions we have with others are all things we can manage to reduce our chance of catching coronavirus. That also goes for our interactions with gorillas.

Tourists are particularly prone to being carriers of Covid-19, thanks to travel stresses and our increased exposure to germs on public transport. Symptoms like fatigue and coughing can be confused with jetlag and dehydration. You’ll also only be trekking for 2-3 days; Covid-19 usually doesn’t cause symptoms until the fourth day onwards. Often, it doesn’t cause symptoms at all, so self-analysing whether we feel ill isn’t enough of a safety precaution.
It would take up to 70 years for the mountain gorilla population in Bwindi to recover from a Covid-19 outbreak.
If there is an outbreak in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, it’s estimated that up to 128 gorillas could die – and the population would take up to 70 years to recover. Even a minor outbreak could have a terrible outcome.

Covid-19 vaccines are the hope at the end of the tunnel, but their use won’t be widespread until at least 2022. And when Covid-19 fizzles out, there’ll be another pandemic – just as Ebola and SARS came before Covid-19. We must adapt to seeing gorillas safely in times when human-animal virus transmission is increasing.

Our newly raised awareness of how viruses spread – and how dangerous they can be – has changed our behaviour remarkably quickly. Social distancing, vaccinations and mask wearing are all good things when it comes to keeping gorillas healthy. Positively, that raised awareness is already making a difference in the national parks. The International Gorilla Conservation Programme, for instance, has collaborated with Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda to update porter training, so that they’re able to encourage visitors to stick to strict gorilla watching guidelines.

We’ve shared the new research and updated guidelines with our gorilla trekking specialists and the relevant tourist boards, and we’ll update this page as we receive new information and feedback from the experts who run our holidays. Increasing the awareness of both travellers and the travel industry will help us all keep gorillas safe.

Should we stop going on gorilla safaris?

No. Tourists are a source of Covid-19, but if the guidelines above are strictly enforced, then our danger to mountain gorillas is minimal. However, if you’re unable to wear a mask or can’t be vaccinated, then we wouldn’t recommend going gorilla watching for now.

There are many social and economic reasons for returning to gorilla trekking. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, for instance, is one of the best places for observing mountain gorillas in the wild. Communities around the forest depend on visitors for income. Uganda expected wildlife tourism to bring 1.5 million visitors and £1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) of income in 2020. Instead, Ugandans saw one of their major sources of income disappear completely. It’s important that visitors return as soon as it’s safe for people and gorillas.
Uganda expected wildlife tourism to bring 1.5 million visitors in 2020. Instead, Ugandans saw one of their major sources of income disappear.
Poaching increased in Uganda during the Covid-19 lockdown – likely due to financial difficulties and food shortages. In March and April 2020, 822 snares were found in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. There were only 21 found in March and April 2019. In June 2020, a silverback gorilla was killed in self-defence by a man hunting for antelope and pigs to eat.

Wildlife treks offer an alternative and sustainable source of income from tourists who pay for local tour guides, accommodation, national park fees, trekking permits and taxes. The money gets funnelled back into community funds, conservation efforts, government coffers and responsible tour operators passionate about keeping these tours going. Responsible wildlife tourism also reduces the need for local people to remove forest for farming and mining in regions where deforestation is still the biggest threat to gorillas.

Gorilla conservation hasn’t treated everyone well. Farmers have lost land and communities have been displaced when national parks were created. However, at the moment, there is positive feeling. In Bwindi, 94 percent of the residents asked agreed that the community fund, which puts a fixed percentage of tourist cash into the community, has improved their livelihoods and their feelings towards the national park.
Gorilla trekking is vital to the long-term survival of mountain gorillas and the communities that live near them.
Gorilla trekking is still vital to the long-term survival of mountain gorillas and the communities that live near them. Post-pandemic, the steady income from gorilla safaris can also help with the economic recovery of host countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But it’ll only be successful if gorilla tourism remains responsible. We need these stricter guidelines to be enforced, plus a raised awareness of how to trek safely without endangering ourselves or the gorillas. By following these guidelines – as proven when we’ve followed social distancing and hygiene guidelines in our day-to-day lives during the Covid-19 pandemic – we can return to admiring these magnificent animals.

Further reading

With thanks to Megan Epler Wood, director of International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, for sharing Mitigating Impacts of Covid-19 on Mountain Gorilla Tourism in Uganda, by M. Mingle, 2020 Gorilla Doctors: Monitoring Covid-19 in western lowland gorillas International Gorilla Conservation Programme: Covid-19 and mountain gorillas Gorilla safari travel guide Gorillas and responsible tourism Gorilla trekking holidays Forbes: Why Covid-19 is bad news for gorillas
Photo credits: [Page banner: Christopher Michel] [Intro: TASHOBYA] [Why should we follow stricter guidelines?: Thomas Fuhrmann] [Should we stop going on gorilla safaris?: Thomas Fuhrmann]
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