The collapse of tourism due to COVID-19 is spurring a search for more diverse sources of funding to support gorilla conservation in East Africa


Gorilla tourism was an economic powerhouse in pre-COVID times. Tourists came from around the world to view endangered mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda and Uganda, bringing in tens of millions of dollars each year and providing a powerful incentive for governments and local communities to protect gorilla populations.

Entry fees to national parks and related spending by tourists became significant contributors to the two countries’ economies, especially to the management of national parks and the livelihoods of nearby communities. In Uganda, gorilla tourism alone provided 60 per cent of the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s revenue over the past few years. In 2017, Rwanda received 1.5 million international travelers and generated annual tourism revenues of US$438 million, while the country’s parks alone received 94,000 visitors with a revenue of $18.7 million1.

But when the scientific community realized that COVID-19 posed severe dangers to great apes – which are genetically similar to humans and therefore highly susceptible to infection – both Rwanda and Uganda immediately closed down their parks in March, bringing tourism to a grinding halt. Research projects were shut down as well, including several planned activities under the Vanishing Treasures programme.

How COVID-19 is affecting the Vanishing Treasures programme in the Virungas


Current restrictions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic make it difficult to operate on the ground in the Virunga Mountains. For example, a Vanishing Treasures pilot project to improve buffer zone management in Nkuringo on the southern edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, planned with the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, has been delayed due to local restrictions. Implementation of activities will start as soon as the situation on the ground permits.

There is a risk that we are losing in conservation what we have achieved over the past 15-20 years: Protected area authorities have reduced income and resources to conduct law enforcement operations, and community members lack income, there is a risk that this will lead to increased poaching and habitat destruction.

Johannes Refisch, Coordinator
UNEP Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP)

While both countries have now reopened their parks to tourism – while reducing park fees significantly to attract local and resident tourists – the number of visitors is unlikely to return to pre-COVID levels anytime soon.

Potential new sources of revenue for gorilla conservation


Given the current volatility in the tourism sector and the very real health risk that tourists can pose to gorillas, what alternatives might there be for funding protection of gorilla populations? Conservationists are now considering a number of approaches.

Forest carbon credits: The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change includes an incentive program to protect tropical forests, which are important carbon sinks. The programme, REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation plus), offers results-based payments for actions that reduce or eliminate forest carbon emissions, including actions that support biodiversity in forests. In theory, REDD+ has the potential to help gorilla conservation efforts as protecting forest landscapes also helps to protect large animals within them, including those in forests that are currently not within protected areas.

In 2016, GRASP collaborated with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology to produce maps of areas in Africa and Asia where great ape ranges and forest carbon stocks overlap, highlighting spots that should be high priority for conservation efforts. In Liberia, results were presented to the Liberian government to prioritize its REDD+ investments2. And from 2011 to 2012, GRASP supported the Wildlife Conservation Society in implementing a REDD project in Cameroon that aimed to strengthen management of protected gorilla habitat and increase the size of the surrounding buffer zone. An approach like this could be replicated in the Virunga Mountain areas that are home to mountain gorillas.

Wildlife credits: The relatively new concept of wildlife credits is similar to forest carbon credits, and in some cases closely aligned with them. This is a type of payment for an ecosystem service, where communities involved in wildlife conservation are rewarded for their performance in conserving a global good. These types of programs can generate funds from local, national, and international sources based on independently verified conservation performance by communal conservancies. Wildlife credits have been piloted in a few countries including Namibia.

Whether wildlife credits are connected to the REDD+ scheme or not, there is real potential in asking richer countries and individual supporters to finance the conservation of great apes and other primates through these kinds of programs.

Digital solutions: A number of initiatives are trying to use technology and online efforts to fund primate conservation. Virtual ecotourism, for example, could generate some income, though it would not compensate for the lost revenue from a visitor who is paying $1,500 for a single gorilla tracking permit in Rwanda. The gaming industry could be another innovative source of funding towards conservation. The Internet of Elephants, a collaborative game-developing social enterprise working towards a stronger connection between people and wild animals, has partnered with the Borneo Nature Foundation and the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project to design Wildeverse, an augmented reality game featuring gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. While these games focus on raising awareness, they could also be used to raise funding, either by having part of the purchase price donated to conservation efforts or by inviting players to donate.

Crowdfunding: Crowdfunding is the use of small amounts of money from a large number of people to help fund activities or start business ideas. Renowned British broadcaster and conservationist David Attenborough launched the first crowdfunding campaign to save mountain gorillas already in 2013, while the academic journal Conservation Biology focused on crowdfunding as a way to generate funds and awareness in one of its issues3.

Emergency funding: Unfortunately, diversification of revenue streams does not happen overnight, yet protected area authorities and nearby communities need support right now. Emergency funding from UN programmes and NGOs could help offset losses in protected areas that are highly dependent on tourism. The Rapid Response Facility, a partnership between UNESCO and the NGO Fauna & Flora International, has already provided emergency support to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the form of personal protective equipment for gorilla trackers so they could continue their work. Other emergency-type grants for wildlife made available include through the IUCN/SOS African Wildlife and The Lion’s Share initiatives. The latter announced the first 9 projects receiving funding, including Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda which hosts chimpanzees.

COVID-19 is not the only threat to mountain gorillas


Of course, the COVID-19 virus is just one of many threats facing mountain gorillas. The climate crisis and the complex web of impacts it may generate still remain one of the most serious risks to the gorilla’s survival. Despite a temporary dip in greenhouse gas emissions during the pandemic, climate change is not slowing down, and threatens to impact the habitat, diet and behaviour of gorillas, potentially in ways still unknown. The economic damage from climate change will also be very high – one estimate is the equivalent cost of a COVID-like pandemic every 10 years – so the economic pressures on gorilla-adjacent communities will mount.

We need to be prepared for more shocks – whether they come from diseases, natural disasters, or slow-onset changes – and we need to make sure that our conservation efforts are resilient to these shocks. The goal of the Vanishing Treasures programme is to improve the understanding of climate change impacts on mountain gorillas specifically, and to find sustainable, climate-smart solutions to enhance the co-existence with neighbouring communities to safeguard the future for these majestic animals.

About the World Gorilla Day


World Gorilla Day is celebrated every year on 24th September to raise awareness about gorillas and spur action for their survival. This year, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme will mark the day by launching the Gorilla friendly pledge, an initiative to promote mountain gorilla tourism best practices.

While wearing face masks and keeping proper distance have always been advised to protect wild great ape populations where tourism is used as a conservation tool, the Gorilla Friendly™ Pledge reinforces this and other behaviors for tourists to play their part. This is more important than ever with the virus causing COVID-19 being a potential threat to these apes’ survival. Even if you aren’t visiting gorillas in the wild, you can take the Pledge to show your support and commitment to responsible practice.

Anna Behm Masozera, Director
International Gorilla Conservation Programme

GRASP, the IUCN Primate Specialist Group/Section on Great Apes, WWF, WCS and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund have endorsed the Pledge, among other world-renowned conservation organizations.