September 25, 2009

Uganda To Launch Virtual Gorilla Tourism Project

Uganda is set to launch a project that would allow gorilla enthusiasts to pay online visits to the nation's endangered apes, and to become virtual friends with them via the Internet, according to Ugandan officials.

The "Friend a Gorilla" project will involve a system of cameras placed in a forest in the southwest part of the country that will allow people to watch the gorillas feed, run through the undergrowth and even give birth, said Moses Mapesa Wafula of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) during an interview with the AFP news agency.

The initiative will be formally launched on Saturday in Kampala, and will cost visitors just one dollar a year for access.

The generated funds will help with mountain gorilla conservation.

"Because we cannot physically satisfy global demand to track gorillas we have decided to use technology and bring these gorillas into the sitting rooms of people around the globe, by positioning cameras in the wild," Wafula said.

Uganda currently has seven groups of gorillas habituated to visitors, with an eighth, the Nshongi group of 34 individual apes, to be introduced on Thursday.   These habituated animals are less than one-quarter of Uganda's total gorilla population.

"We're being conservative because the most important thing with the gorillas is their own safety. They are vulnerable to diseases, especially airborne diseases," said Wafule, who heads the UWA.

There is little chance that a "virtual visit" via the Internet will replace the real thing, as the experience will not give the visitor the adrenalin rush of being charged by a silverback nor the excitement of observing a female gorilla play with her baby.  Nor does it provide the spectacular views from the road up the mountain into the forest, UWA officials say.

Uganda has worked hard to ensure that local communities around the forest benefit from gorilla trekking to prevent villagers from hunting in the forest or clearing it  -- practices that threaten the gorillas' habitat.

In addition to the 20 percent share of national park entry fees they receive, local communities operate some of the facilities around Bwindi and also sell some of their crops to higher-end lodges and tented camps.

In Rushaga village, adjacent to one of the park entrances, villagers recall the days when they would be publicly caned by UWA rangers if they were found trespassing in the forest.

Meeting at the village's only bar, Kamari and his friends now appreciate the benefits of gorilla tourism for local communities -- the road connecting Rushaga to the closest town has just been resurfaced.

Gorilla tourism is not an inexpensive endeavor, and has grown to become Uganda's second biggest foreign-currency earner.  Indeed, tourists must pay for a permit, car hire and other accommodations. 

In 2008, some 600,000 gorilla tourists visited Uganda to see the apes, paying $500 dollars each to spend an hour tracking the gorillas through the dense, wet forest.

About 340 of the world's estimated 720 highly endangered mountain gorillas live in Uganda.  The apes are found only in Bwindi and in the Virunga mountains bordering Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).


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