Following years of poaching and habitat destruction, the population of mountain gorillas in Rwanda once numbered under 260 individuals. Now, Rwandan gorillas represent a rare conservation success and a key economic engine for the East African country, reports CBS.
“One of, if not the top source, of foreign revenue, is tourism to see the gorillas. For the whole country,” says primatologist Tara Stoinski, who heads the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, a non-profit science and conservation organization.
A major contributor to the gorillas’ population rebound is what Stoinski and the Rwandan government call “extreme conservation.” Today, poaching in the country is no longer present. Instead, each gorilla family in the Virunga mountains is carefully monitored by researchers and trackers on a daily basis.
What’s particularly surprising about the animal’s story is the contribution of tourists to their conservation success. First brought to international attention by the conservation efforts of Dian Fossey in the late 1960s, Rwanda’s mountain gorillas have become a major tourist attraction in the country. Visitors willing to see the animals in their natural habitat pay about $1,500 per person to trek up the volcano and spend just one hour with these charismatic creatures.
As noted by CBS, the gorilla treks are operated by the government, with 10 percent of the revenue going to the communities surrounding the national park. These, in turn, invest the money in local development, including schools, infrastructure, and other essential facilities to improve their lives.
After years of determined conservation efforts, mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Virunga mountains number more than 600, while neighboring Uganda is home to another 400. While things are moving in the right direction, conservationists note that the animal still faces dangers, including traps set for other animals. “It is a success story, definitely, but we say it’s a fragile success because there are so few of them left and there are still so many threats,” says Stoinski.