Is It Ethical to Track Gorillas?

Article from the series: Frequently Asked Questions about Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo

61mm, f/6.3, 1/320, ISO400

Questions like this are tricky, mainly because only one of the parties involved — that would be us, the humans — can truly understand what’s happening and why. Let me explain.

Mountain gorillas were almost extinct by the early 1980s, and only a concerted conservation effort brought them back from the brink. But conservation isn’t cheap. This is partly for reasons that many parks need to deal with — rangers, infrastructure, management and admin staff — and partly because the mountain gorillas’ traditional home region has often been fairly volatile, particularly in DR Congo. So where do relatively poor African nations find the money to pay for wildlife protection when much of the local human population is struggling to make ends meet?

Enter nature-based tourism. Just like safaris in other parks, gorilla tracking is a way to raise important revenue as well as increase awareness of and interest in wildlife. Because of the unique experience — approaching on foot, the limited number of places where gorillas can be seen — gorilla tracking is relatively expensive (though I would argue definitely worth it). We can easily make the argument that this is the price they have to pay for their protection. The trouble, of course, is that we can’t explain that to them: all they know is that we’re there.

Just like this relaxed silverback in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, all the gorillas you can visit have been habituated. This is a long process — it takes several years — during which gorilla families are gradually exposed to the presence of humans. Unhabituated gorillas won’t generally stick around if they see or hear people coming. Habituation isn’t unique for gorillas, by the way; for the most part, if animals you see on safari are relaxed around your vehicle that’s for exactly the same reason, though the habituation process might have been different. You can be sure that the gorillas you go to see wouldn’t allow you to come close if they weren’t okay with you being there.

Do they like it? That’s trickier to answer. Gorillas are very smart, and often very expressive. Get too close, and they will let you know that you’re too close. Our in-house gorilla expert, Amy Porter, spoke about this in a recent podcast episode, which I highly recommend listening to. Personally, I think gorilla tracking is fine — as long as you behave responsibly and respectfulty. They are highly sentient beings. and should be treated as such.

Don’t miss our extensive interview with Marcus and head to his website for even more.