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Gorillas, baboons and the wildilfe tourist ‘You’ in Uganda

‘Our cousins’

A furry face with a long snout and inquisitive eyes. He was not looking at us, the viewers – his attention was focused on the lush green jungle. The photo was taken in Uganda. ‘This is the baboon, our cousin,’ explained Dr. Busulwa, from the Makerere University [1]. Later I was to learn that the baboon  interacts most frequently with people, compared with all other primates in East Africa. Apart from humans, baboons are the most adaptable of the ground-dwelling primates and live in a wide variety of habitats. Intelligent and crafty, they can even be agricultural pests.

Dr. Busulwa had not taken a photo of the gorillas. They are too rare and endangered  and it is difficult and expensive to reach their habitat. The endangered mountain gorillas cannot survive in detention – e.g. in zoological gardens. They can only be found and seen in Africa. As of November 2012, the estimated total number of mountain gorillas was around 880 individuals. Clearly, gorillas need the help of humans, ‘their cousins,’ in order to survive.

Today conservation has become increasingly internationalized in its ideologies and methodologies. The former ‘fines and fences’ approach has become ‘community conservation.’ Yet community conservation is not a static theoretical definition, but encompasses a continuum, spanning across initiatives aimed at supporting national parks to initiatives, which recognize the needs for rural development. Moreover, the conservation of the gorillas requires international efforts and significant expenses.


 ‘You’ in the ‘primordial, mysterious and impenetrable forest’

International wildlife tourism has been essential to the maintenance of gorilla habitat. ‘Mountain gorillas are the major reason as to why very many people visit Uganda,’ admits Bwindi national park. Tourist activities, such as ‘gorilla trekking,’ attract considerable number of foreign visitors, thus ensuring the provision of much-needed funding for the conservation programmes and for the poor communities, living in proximity to the protected areas.
Thus, a new tourist industry has sprung up around ‘gorilla trekking.’ The industry clearly caters to the foreign visitors, with advertisements, which read:


‘Picture this: You are sitting up on a ridge, above the clouds, looking across to the Virunga volcanoes. Behind you is the primordial, mysterious and impenetrable forest that is Bwindi. As you sit there, drinking your chilled wine, or your freshly brewed coffee, or your freshly squeezed juice or your amber coloured whisky you smile. You smile because you know that your personal butler is lighting the fire in your cottage and setting out your freshly laundered clothes. In the kitchen a gorgeous meal is being prepared, and tomorrow after breakfast you will walk from the lodge to the Nkuringo trailhead and track the gorillas.’

The foreign visitor’s ‘you:’ this is the focus of the advertisement. The gorillas, which are supposedly the reason for the trip, come in the very last place of the ad. The exotic location – ‘the primordial, mysterious and impenetrable forest’ – is a setting for the pleasurable experiences of the visitors. The local communities are almost completely absent, with the exception of ‘your personal butler,’ who has ‘quiet dedication’ to ‘you’  and ‘the smiles on the faces of virtually all the staff.’

Successful conservation efforts require community effort. However, the international visitors are conspicuously absent from the so-called ‘conservation community continuum’ ranging from the African national parks to the rural settings. Yet, in fact the tourists are members of every part of this spectrum and they should percieve themselves as inhabitants (however temporary), rather than as simply sideline spectators of the ‘primordial, mysterious and impenetrable forest’.


A question instead of a conclusion

What is needed for the successful conservation of both the baboons and the gorillas? In the conservation challenges of human co-existence with the seemingly ubiquitous baboon, the most important ethical imperative is to remember the advice of Dr. Busulwa – ‘baboons are our cousins’ – and to treat them as such.
Gorillas share 98% of our human DNA. What are they then to us, and how should we treat them?



[1] Dr. Henry Ssebuliba Busulwa, 09.03.2015, ‘Developing a new science education curriculum to promote sustainability, ecology and the environment (Science Education)’ – CAPREx Fellow (Makerere University , Uganda), Visiting African Fellows’ Research Showcase, Cambridge-Africa Programme.


Photo credits:

Photo 1 Kurt Ackermann, Wikimedia Commons,

Photo 2 “Silverback of Ntambara group” by Azurfrog – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

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