June 22, 2006

Scientist Prepares Congo Gorillas for Tourism

By Ed Stoddard

ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - If you have gorillas the tourists will come -- but it may take some time if your apes live in the remote east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, better known for anarchy and conflict than tourism.

"It is my dream (to have tourists come) because with tourism we'll have benefits and money coming in," Pierre Kakule Vwirasihikya told Reuters during a conservation conference in the Malagasy capital, where ecotourism is a key theme.

Vwirasihikya, a Congolese primatologist, has been working with local guides to habituate two families of rare mountain gorillas on the Congo side of the Virunga National Park, which straddles the border with Uganda and Rwanda.

The process of habituation is a long one and involves getting the gorillas comfortable with humans in their midst.

It also means hair-raising encounters with huge males which sometimes charge.

"I have scars here from falling down when I was running away," said Vwirasihikya, pointing to marks etched into his forehead.

Mountain gorillas are found nowhere else and ape tourism is a huge money-spinner on the Rwandan and Ugandan sides of the border. But tourists are few and far between on the Congo side, which has about 200 of the apes.

Eastern Congo was the main battleground of a civil war which erupted in 1998 and dragged in other African states, some of whose troops pillaged its rich mineral and timber resources.

The vast former Belgian colony is preparing for its first free elections in over 40 years, but roving bandits and militias still terrorise villages in the east.

A few years ago, amid the chaos of war Vwirasihikya also set up the Tayna Gorilla Reserve about 350 kms (220 miles) west of Virunga. The 88,000 hectare protected area is the first community-run reserve in the Congo and is home to about 350 eastern lowland gorillas.

"I went to the local chiefs and said we need to protect these gorillas and they agreed. We have been habituating gorillas in Tayna," said Vwirasihikya.

The project is funded by the green NGO Conservation International (CI) and also involves the Dian Fossey Gorilla International Fund (DFGFI).

But Vwirasihikya hopes that eventually tourists will bring in the money needed to run this park too.

"We think that in the future we will have tourism," he said.