In the financial year 2018/2019, Uganda sold 43,124 gorilla permits according to Simplicious Gesa, the Public Relations Manager for Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). International tourists pay US$700 per person to track gorillas in Uganda. Communities living around the forest receive US$10 per gorilla permit sold, plus 20% of the US$40 park entry fees, in recognition of the importance of their support for conservation.
Whereas the global spread of COVID-19 has thrown the world into disarray, presenting multifaceted shocks including public and health crisis which has put a halt to all forms of travel and tourism, statistics from the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) indicate that the sector of travel and tourism contributes one in every five new jobs globally, and approximately 319 million individuals depend on this sector for the livelihood, worldwide.
In Uganda, the tourism sector is the country’s leading foreign exchange earner which (until the outbreak of COVID-19) was contributing 8% of the country’s gross domestic product and providing approximately 700,000 direct and indirect jobs. According to UWA’s Bashir Hangi, 75% of Uganda’s tourism revenue comes from gorilla tourism.
Impact of Covid-19 on Gorilla Tourism
Humans and apes in Africa share over 98% DNA. Therefore, genetic material and zoonotic diseases have been transmitted between them causing morbidity and mortality. Studies indicate that gorillas, chimpanzees, and other old world primates are just as susceptible as humans to COVID-19. Wild great apes are at risk of contracting human diseases from the people they interact with including park staff, conservation personnel, researchers, tourists, and local communities.
Media reports indicate that the first natural transmission of COVID-19 to primates occurred at San Diego Zoo Safari park in South America, where a 48-year old adult male gorilla developed severe signs and the rest of the younger members of the troop developed mild signs of COVID-19.
Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only resulted in a breakdown of human health care systems but also presented a new threat to the conservation of wildlife. For a species as endangered as the mountain gorillas, the balance between health and economics has become even more critical for their survival during this pandemic.
On the other hand, the absence of tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the killing of the lead silverback of the Nkuringo gorilla group in Bwindi National park on June 1, 2020 by a hungry community member hunting duiker and bush pigs for food.
Gorillas are not eaten in Uganda, but become accidental victims of snares set for other species. Whereas the poacher was given 11years custodial sentence, the killing of an endangered gorilla species, generated a worldwide acknowledgment of the devastating impact of the pandemic on the conservation of wildlife.
Mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on great ape health and community well-being
With a population of 1,063 mountain gorillas, Uganda is home to half of the world’s mountain gorillas, found in the dense forests of Bwindi impenetrable national park and Virunga mountains which are shared by Uganda Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Following the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, with the first case being detected in Uganda on March 11, 2020, efforts are being made to test the habituated gorillas of COVID-19.
Guidelines to minimise disease transmission between people and gorillas were instituted by UWA with support from International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) when tourism began in 1993. These rules included not being allowed to visit the gorillas when showing signs of illness, maintaining a 5metre distance and turning away while coughing or sneezing.
Park staff who monitor the health of gorillas and protect them through law enforcement patrols in the forest, were trained to wear protective face masks, enforce hand hygiene, and a 10metre great ape viewing distance as an additional measure during the pandemic.
The rangers were also provided with double layered cloth face masks and hand sanitizers. Since the pandemic began, the 270 Village Health and Conservation Teams(VHCTs) have reached over 5,000 households with critical health and conservation information and services.