Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine
April 23,2000

Uncertain times in the Impenetrable Forest
The murder of gorilla-watchers in Uganda has underscored the fragile relationship between ecotourism and preservation. Tourism is down. The local economy has suffered. And preservation efforts are imperiled.

Through the dense foliage of the forest, a mountain gorilla eyes visitors. (Eric Mencher / Inquirer)

Ruhondeza, a 450-pound mountain gorilla whose name means "the one who sleeps a lot," was living up to his lethargic reputation.

Ruhondeza dozed in a bed of spongy ferns, offering a glimpse of the gray hair on his back that distinguishes him as a dominant adult male. The muscular 30-year-old silverback was unimpressed by his visitors, world travelers who had slogged through a dense tropical forest to track these awesome and endangered creatures at their home in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.

The 16 other gorillas in Ruhondeza's group were slightly more intrigued. Several nursing mothers clutched their babies and stared. A young female climbed a mossy tree and released an impressive cascade of urine that did not disrupt Ruhondeza's slumber. A few juveniles dangled from vines beneath the dark forest canopy, wary of the half-dozen strange hominids with cameras pressed to their faces.

Less than an hour later, Ruhondeza rolled over and grunted, signaling the end to his siesta. The group of gorillas decamped in an orderly queue across a gurgling stream, disappearing into the thick underbrush. The travelers, who had spent hundreds of dollars - if not thousands - to venture to this remote corner of Uganda, sighed after the 40-minute sojourn among some of the world's rarest animals.

"It was wonderful," said Rae Hughes, an older Australian who wheezed frightfully during the arduous three-hour hike into the forest. "It was everything I hoped for."

A Dutch tourist, Claudia van Westen, was a little disappointed - she apparently had seen too many gorilla movies. "I thought they were bigger," she said, holding her arms about three feet apart. "Like this."

Nobody objected to one feature recently added to the trek - three Ugandan soldiers with AK-47 assault rifles who stood silently in the forest behind the tourists.

The armed guards, along with other soldiers patrolling deeper in the forest, were assigned to gorilla duty last year after Rwandan rebels based in nearby Congo butchered eight tourists and a park warden at Bwindi's camps.

The murder of the tourists - two Americans, four Britons and two New Zealanders - practically erased Uganda's embryonic tourist industry overnight. All but the most intrepid travelers still shun Bwindi, where about half of the world's remaining 600 mountain gorillas live.

The incident did more than undermine tourism in Uganda, which was slowly recovering its image after a succession of postcolonial wars and dictators, including Idi Amin's eight-year reign of terror in the 1970s.

The murders underscored the fragile nature of conservation efforts in Africa's volatile Great Lakes region, home of some of the world's rarest species of animals and plants. The preservation of the region's extraordinary ecosystems depends in large part upon money generated by tourism.

Across the border and about 100 miles south of Bwindi, Congo's unresolvable civil war has driven tourists away from Kahuzi-Biega National Park, where game wardens disarmed by rebels are no match for a hungry, impoverished population. Poachers have come close to wiping out the park's forest elephants, antelopes and eastern lowland gorillas, a species not as rare as mountain gorillas, but still endangered.

Mountain gorillas, the creatures popularized by the 1988 movie Gorillas in the Mist about American researcher Dian Fossey, can be found in only two isolated pockets near the border of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, a region where volcanoes and ethnic disputes can erupt with little warning.

Despite wars and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the mountain gorillas have fared better than expected, partly because they have attracted so much international attention from researchers. Mountain gorillas are the only gorilla species that has been accustomed to humans, though none are kept in captivity.

Rebellions have forced scientists to retreat repeatedly from the gorillas' homes in Rwanda and in the Virunga National Park in Congo. Poachers have killed at least 14 mountain gorillas in recent years, and more have become tangled in snares designed for small game.

But when trackers working for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund returned last year to Rwanda, they found that most of the animals previously under study had survived. Rwanda reopened the park to tourism in July, though trackers are accompanied by armed guards.

Biologists theorize that mountain gorillas developed as a separate species from their more populous lowland cousins during Pleistocene ice ages, when forests retreated to higher altitudes in East Africa. The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda was one such redoubt. It contains dozens of unique species of birds, plants and animals besides the mountain gorillas.

Living in small social groups centered on one or two silverbacks, the shy mountain gorillas adapted to higher altitudes and a diet of tree bark and leaves rather than fruit. They spend about 40 percent of their day sitting and eating, which makes them easier to track than the more mobile western lowland gorillas, the apes commonly found in zoos.

Gorillas, which share 98 percent of the genetic material of humans, are the meal ticket for Uganda's park system. They attract most of the international attention and funding that is channeled into Uganda's parks.

Only six tourists are permitted to see a group of gorillas for one hour each day. The visitors are required to maintain a distance of 15 feet to reduce the chance of transmitting a disease to the apes. They pay $250 each for a one-day gorilla-tracking permit.

In Uganda, only three groups of gorillas are accustomed to tourists, so only 6,500 tourists can see the animals each year. Despite the small number, gorilla-tracking permits at Bwindi and nearby Mgahingha Gorilla National Park account for 70 percent of the revenue for the entire Uganda Wildlife Authority. Before the tourist attack, gorilla permits were reserved for months in advance.

Unlike neighboring Kenya and Tanzania, which have well-established tour businesses built around several well-populated game reserves, Uganda was essentially a one-event stop for high-end travelers - the gorillas. After the attack, most tour operators simply stopped traveling to Uganda.

"The attack came at a time when we had put together an ambitious marketing program," says Ignatius B. Nakishero, the head of marketing for the Uganda Tourist Board, who was preparing to visit London to woo bird-watchers. "Basically that plan was shot."

Some tourists have returned, but so far they have been mostly European and American backpackers, who don't spend as much as luxury travelers.

"We hope the backpackers will spread the word and we get the people we want," Nakishero says. "If nothing goes wrong again, we should be recovered by the end of the year. But things are strange in Congo."

At Bwindi, the park is far from recovered. The few tourists who visit stay only long enough to see gorillas.

"The only people who come now are gorilla trackers," says Benon Mougyerwa, the acting warden whose predecessor was killed by the rebels. "Nobody likes to relax here. There's no relaxation."

The park closed for a month of mourning after the attack on the park March 1, 1999, when several hundred rebels descended upon the camps near the park entrance at dawn, rousing staff and tourists from their beds with gunshots.

The rebels destroyed park vehicles, burned accommodations and stole the rangers' equipment, including radios. Witnesses said they methodically went through luggage and possessions of staff and tourists, looking for cash and valuables.

The rebels singled out Americans and British tourists and led them into the dense forest between the camps and the Congolese border, three miles away. They were told they were being taken because of U.S. and British government support for Rwanda's Tutsi-led government.

Some captives were able to escape. But the rebels clubbed and hacked to death four men and four women about a mile from the camps. One of the women had been raped.

Ugandan soldiers said they pursued the attackers into Congo and killed 15 rebels whom they blamed for the attack. But the damage was already done.

The luxury tented camp run by upmarket tour operator Abercrombie & Kent - where some of the abducted tourists were staying - is still closed. Other camps and lodges at the park entrance are open, though there is an eerie absence of guests. Many camps go several nights without clients.

"Hardly anyone stays here more than two nights," says Peter Twebaze, manager of African Pearl Safari, a small lodge across from the rebuilt park rangers' office. The lodge employed six people before the murders. Now it hardly has enough business to keep the three remaining employees busy.

Twebaze grew up in the town of Buhoma just outside the park entrance. The attack has crippled the local economy, which was largely based on tourism. The people who supplied food and services to the camps are out of work, as are the drivers and the porters who carried the gear of gorilla trackers.

"Nobody has any money," Twebaze says. "There's just no business."

The economic losses go beyond the lack of employment. Twenty percent of the park's gate receipts are channeled to local projects such as schools and community centers. Most of that is gone. The community also owned one of the park's camps; its thatch huts were sacked and burned.

Park employees hope that the stepped-up security will reassure tourists that they are safe.

"The attack is old history," says Richard Magezi Gondgo, the guide who led the group of tourists to Ruhondeza, the one who sleeps a lot. "We've forgotten that already."

Some of the tourists seem to have short memories, too. "How many tourists did you say were killed?" asked van Westen, the tourist from the Netherlands.

The fading of the headlines may save the business in the end. And tracking gorillas has become such a mystical experience - like communing with our evolutionary ancestors - that some people will risk their necks to do it.

Even on the day of the murders, some tourists still wanted to go gorilla tracking, according to aid workers who were in the area.

"It was crazy," said Tom Blomley, a conservation and development officer for Care International. "Some backpackers said, 'We'll still go there. No problem.' Crazy. Bodies littered the place and the huts were burned, but people still wanted to go."

"I decided this was something I really wanted to do," said Rae Hughes, the Australian tourist who struggled mightily to follow the bushwhacked track to the gorillas. "I was told if you don't mind security around, it was worth doing." home page   
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