More than a million and a half viewers have watched the mountain gorilla YouTube. Is this the reason Rwanda has raised the permit price to $750?
I’m absolutely infuriated by this hike. The added revenue is not going to gorilla research, and the bulk of it is not going back into any kind of conservation whatever: it’s going to a very corrupted, dictatorial and inhumane Rwandan government.
There’s no way Rwanda will open its books so that we can see exactly where that $750 goes. The country has become one of the world’s worst human rights violators, thumbing its nose at virtually all organizations demanding public accountability. I’d speculate that $750 is divided something like this:
$125 for gorilla and other conservation
$125 for country-wide development
$150 for security and incarceration of political dissidents
$150 for unnecessary pet projects of political bigwigs
$300 into the pockets and Swiss bank accounts of high officials
Second, this absurd cost to spend an hour with a wild animal continues the transformation of the planet’s wildernesses into a playground exclusively for the rich.
And thirdly, it coopts wilderness conservation from a scientific orientation into a commercial one insensitive to the needs of the Rwandan people, and in fact one which tacitly supports their oppression.
EWT sent some of the very first tourists up Karisoke during the first mountain gorilla visits in 1979. The permit cost was $25. There was one organization involved in the project and Rwanda was anything but a stable, modern country.
Today Rwanda is probably the most modern country in East Africa. Fiber cable has been laid or is being laid to carry the most advanced technologies to virtually every corner of this tiny country. The Rwandan economy – benefitting from a hugely disproportionate amount of foreign aid as a result of the ‘94 genocide – is booming.
And gorilla permits now cost 30 times what they originally did and there are more than a dozen foreign wildlife organizations working in the area. And, very importantly, the population of mountain gorillas has more than doubled to just under 800.
That population is probably near its maximum, because the habitat isn’t large enough for more. I’m sure that many scientists will disagree, but I’ll cynically suggest they are circumscribed by their own over-field population encouraged by Rwandan officials.
I’m sure throughout Africa there is more habitat suitable for mountain gorillas than there currently are mountain gorillas, but in Rwanda specially and alone, I think we’ve reached the maximum. The gorilla density in the Rwandan Virungas has exceeded its natural carrying capacity specifically to encourage tourism dollars.
The evidence of this is the growing size (numbers of individual per family) and the acceleration of family amalgamation and the growing examples of multiple silverbacks in the same family.
Humans in Rwanda are also overpopulated. But the state of the Rwandan people is far from being 30 times better than in 1979. There have been notable improvements in the eradication of some poverty and general overall economic development, but personal liberty and freedom of expression have been squashed like a gorilla stepping on a mushroom.
I’ve watched that YouTube video multiple times. I’ve listened to the person narrating the experience drift with his personal excitement into a world of inaccuracies that he either considered inconsequential or artistically fanciful, as proof we as tourists are being fashioned as the weapons against the local population, and as paymasters of the world’s worst dictators.
The excitement of the tourist in that video is still to me critically important. I’ve now trekked to see the gorillas more than 50 times and I will bring others, still again. Whatever else it may be, it is a haven of natural balance and beauty and every time some tourist bonds with it, we can hope her priorities have been realigned to saving the earth.
But just as we walk the Great Wall or paddle down the Tambopata, we must more than ever be cognizant of exactly what we’re doing, and I don’t mean shooting a video.
I mean wondering where the money we paid ends up. I mean wondering why people who aren’t as rich as we are can’t as easily experience the most natural and pristine parts of our earth. I mean wondering why our clawed Victorian bathtub holds gallons of steaming water while the family of the man who cleans it for us is searching for a teaspoon of clean water to drink.
To me, developing the awareness of this awful conundrum in the so-called “wild” is the most important experience of all. It’s a very personal decision. For me as a guide, the absurdity of the cost provides an easier platform for me to help my clients achieve this special awareness. So not yet is the price too high. But what is too high, then? I don’t know. That’s my own, the guide’s conundrum.
My sincere apologies to your predicament.
Not everything is affordable to everyone.
Its called LIFE!!
I agree I really want to go but the fee is ridiculous
Hey Jim – I feel your pain. Even at $500, I have still never been to see the gorillas in Uganda.
At the same time, I realize that the high permit cost is the ONLY reason why there still are mountain gorillas on this planet. The governments of Uganda and Rwanda (I’ll leave DRC out of it) have only protected what’s left of this habitat because of the revenue the gorillas bring in. And other wildlife benefits as well – in Uganda, the gorillas fund much of the operations of all the national parks (something like 50% of the entire budget of the Uganda Wildlife Authority), since Bwindi is the only park that operates at a profit.
I’m sure you have read “In the Kingdom of Gorillas” by Bill Weber and Amy Vedder. It is one of the best books I have come across about the history of mountain gorilla conservation and tourism, while also giving an insightful look into the genocide.
Your point about where the money is REALLY going is certainly a huge issue. Unfortunately, that calls into question whether people should travel to Africa at all, since you have to look closely at your visa fees, the taxes your hotels and ground operators pay, etc. Much of it all is going to line somebody’s pocket, and it is likely funding some questionable activities.
We don’t want gorilla tourism to become mass tourism. It wouldn’t be good for the gorillas. I am ok with gorilla trekking being the realm of the “elite” foreign tourists, as long as they continue to keep the cost reasonable for Ugandans (currently about $100, which still limits it to the elite in Uganda, but at least it puts it in reach for the growing middle class).
It’s a tough issue. On the one hand, it would be great for everybody to get too see the gorillas. On the other hand, we don’t all get to do everything (think about paved, wheelchair accessible pathways through all the wilderness areas of the United States). Maybe the gorillas belong in the realm of the elite and the rest of us just need to be happy that they still exist even if we will never see them in person.
Thanks for this thought-provoking post.
It’s worth every penny of it. Why not have them make a bit more money? Hopefully a large part of the increase will go to conservation, rangers etc. These spectacular animals must be protected! Sorry that not everyone can afford to go but an extra $250 in the grand scheme of a $7500 trip hardly matters..
it’s worth any amount of money to see the mountain gorillas! the reitmans and i still laugh about that trip. happy ,healthy, new year, laura berick
I went on StubHub last night to look for courtside seats to a Chicago Bulls home game. They are going for $1800 a seat. For two hours of entertainment. I love the Bulls but viewing the M Gorillas is better. The issue of how the money is used is a separate issue. So is who has access. The janitor at the United Center can’t sit courtside either. Viewed from a strictly objective, market perspective– there is probably room for gorilla permits to go up! I am glad I did my five treks before this increase!
Absurb! In 2005 it was $350. Africa in general in terms of the hot spots to travel to is pricing itself out of the marketplace. While there are lesser destinations to travel to they present their own problems but in general lodging etc at the chain & boutique lodges have become ridiculous.
Barron S. Wall, ARM, PMC
ICA Risk Management Consultants
If u would have said that they need more $$ for the gorillas or to pay the guards that protect them, I could understand. But the extra $$ are going in someone’s pockets and not helping the gorillas at all. Therefore, only the wealthy can afford to see one of the most endangered animals in the world and that is a crime!!!!!
I have been to Rwanda on a Gorilla treck in the 1980 – when I believe there was no extra fee.
I think the fee is high and would certainly make me think twice before I decided on this trip rather than another.