Were Batwa Really Dangerous to Gorillas?

The sad story of the Batwa “Pygmies” of the Gorilla Highlands reached its dramatic peak when they were kicked out of national parks. This was in line with the traditional view of conservation — nature can only be protected in strict separation from indigenous peoples — but was that actually needed? Were they truly dangerous to gorillas?

Dian Fossey, the legendary mountain gorilla researcher, was famously negative towards the Batwa because of their (alleged) hunting and poaching in the 1970s. This is not the whole story however…

On the contrary, the Batwa can be given credit for the mountain gorilla’s overall survival. There is, for example, a Batwa story intended to protect the forest from farmer hunters: they claimed gorillas caught spears in mid-air and threw them back at the attacker. But they knew very well that gorillas always retreated from humans …

C. R. S. Pitman, an experienced colonial warden, wrote back in 1931 that the:

Batwa frankly regard this great ape with reverence, and though not objecting to act as guides through the mountain fastnesses known only to them, they endeavor to spare themselves the spectacle of the death of what to them is practically one of their own kin. No greater insult could be offered the Batwa than to suggest such an act (eat gorilla flesh); to them it would savour of cannibalism. Professional tanners will not even touch the hides, much less prepare and dress them.

L. Cotlow, an American insurance broker, used Batwa guides in the 1930s for one of the first tourist gorilla experiences
L. Cotlow, an American insurance broker, used Batwa guides in the 1930s for one of the first tourist gorilla experiences

The Batwa were commonly used forest guides by hunters, scientists and tourists for most of the 20th century; they knew sufficient English. However, the deteriorating political situation of the mid 1960s to mid 1980s killed tourism in southwestern Uganda. The final blow came when they were evicted from the national parks in 1991; they lost a useful supplementary income that had become more critical as the forests were cleared.

When gorilla tracking tourism was re-introduced in the early 1990s, the Batwa were excluded. Later on they were allowed sporadic and partial access to Ugandan national parks to collect herbs and visit their graves. More recently they have also been employed in Mgahinga and Bwindi as guides for Batwa-themed activities.

Of the national parks of our region, only Kahuzi-Biega employs the Batwa in significant numbers, as gorilla trackers — a fascinating fact, taking into account that they are the real experts for such environments.

In 2011 a Participatory Three-Dimensional Modelling Project was organised in Kisoro. It demonstrated what kind of forest knowledge still exists in Batwa communities — will it be lost to the detriment of all, including the gorillas?

photo by Marcus Westberg

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