Better the Beast You Know

Better the Beast You Know

"Gorilla Taxes": original construct by pborgbarthet at
The second greatest conservation success story in my lifetime may be out of control. Mountain gorilla populations may be prospering because so are bribes and corruption.

The first mountain gorilla trek I brokered was in June, 1979. At the time Dian Fossey reigned on Karisoke volcano with no aplomb and great madness. But science had arrived and the population count was reliably put at 285.

That is a dangerously low number for any life form.

Last week a consortium of field biologists announced the current mountain gorilla count is right around 800. “Right around” is the euphemistic scientific phrase that means “we can’t get an exact count in The DRC Congo because there’s a war there.”

Nevertheless, the number is fabulous. The population of this awesome beast is not going extinct, at least not right now. And really the sole reason is tourism.

Mountain gorillas live in two places near to one another: Bwindi Forest almost entirely within Uganda, and the much larger Virunga Mountains (which is actually the highland forests connecting seven dormant volcanoes) which is mostly in Rwanda but a bit in Uganda and a bit more also in The DRC Congo.

Bwindi is separated from the Virungas by a 50 kilometer long forest corridor that gorillas likely could use to migrate, although little field science has confirmed this.

Three years ago when guiding a prominent American zoo group I experienced first-hand how a large portion of Bwindi “tourism” works: illegally. It had been often reported before, but this was my first personal experience. Years before, when Uganda tourism was not yet mature, I had a similar experience with my daughter that was actually far more dangerous. This zoo experience was not dangerous, it was simply corrupt.

I knew what we were doing from the getgo. Most tourists do not. A blog I found posted by an enthusiastic traveler last March is a perfect example of a tourist who doesn’t realize she’s engaging in the black market, and it’s a perfect blow-by-blow description of just such an experience.

I’m not want to extol the virtues of capitalism, but the dynamic is a perfect indicator in this case. In Rwanda’s Parc de Volcans, where mountain gorilla trekking has merged art, science and commerce to near perfection, the cost of seeing a mountain gorilla for an hour is $750. In Uganda’s Bwindi, permits are currently going for under $350.

It happens usually with “walk-in” tourists or tourists who have booked too late for a legitimate permit. Real gorilla permits are controlled in Uganda in a very nepotistic way: a mix of officials playing strictly by the rules and demanding full nonrefundable payment at the time of reserving, or by holding a few residual permits in reserve that are allocated to relatives and friends in the tourist industry.

This means that if you book your trek through a reputable local ground handler far enough in advance, you’re probably playing by the rules. In my case three years ago, my choice of a “reputable operator” was flawed.

For a number of years I had relied on a small but extremely dignified man who had deep connections with the Ugandan government which gave me singular but above-board benefits. He had a heart attack only weeks before we arrived, long after we had fully paid him, and his tourist company fell into the control of his far less reputable nephew.

What the disreputable operators do is bribe soldiers or rangers to “guide” tourists to gorilla families that are not yet fully habituated, so to gorilla families that are not yet “on the list” to be visited. At a serious discount to the official permit price.

There are eight habituated gorilla families in Bwindi and nine (soon ten) in Rwanda’s Parc de volcans. With a maximum of 6-8 tourists allowed per family visit, that caps legal permits at right around 125 daily. The demand is far greater than this. It also means that only a fraction of the mountain gorillas alive today are a part of habituated groups. Most are wild animals ripe for exploitation.

Legitimate permits are usually sold out a year in advance. Walk-in tourists usually don’t have the funds, they are generally savvy on the internet, and they know that someone in Kampala will sell them a permit for much less. That wasn’t my unique situation of course, three years ago, but it’s the case most of the time.

There is danger in any black market, and in this one it’s physical as well as the risk that you won’t see gorillas at all. The physical danger comes from approaching a powerful wild animal before it wants you to. “Charging” very rarely happens with habituated gorillas, but you’ll note in the blog I’ve chosen above that this was central to her tourist experience. It’s not a good thing.

But missing the experience altogether is as great a risk. The chance of not encountering a gorilla family on a legitimate non-black market experience is today next to nil. But trekking to non-habituated families usually means it’s much longer, more difficult and easily aborted if weather turns bad. It also means the so-called “guide” probably knows how to shoot better than commune with a gorilla.

Ugandan society at large is much more corrupt than Rwanda, and the shenanigans in Bwindi is pretty typical of the whole range of Ugandan society from permits required to starting a business to parading in public.

The iron fist government in Rwanda, for which I have an equal tome of criticism of a different kind, is insurance that black marketeering of gorilla permits there won’t happen.

Nuff said? Almost, but there’s more. I can’t figure out if the Ugandan official response to the black marketeering was good or bad. That government response was to lower the official permit price to what the black market was commanding, $350.

(In my personal experience three years ago with eight other people, I discovered that the “guide” was given only $150 per person. We had of course paid $500 – the official rate at the time – so there was quite a profit in the capitalist chain that one morning.)

Lowering the price to the black market level is creative, but my assumption is that the black marketers will simply go lower still. Whatever the case, official Uganda is now considering raising the official price back to $500. This remains $250 below the Rwandan level.

What we have happening with mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda is a dangerously unregulated market, because official Ugandan control of Bwindi has been lost to racketeers and corrupt rangers. And I don’t think official fiddling with the price will stop it.

The free-for-all capitalism of Bwindi has led to all sorts of tourist attractions linked directly to less and less good science and wildlife management. Gorillas regularly wander into tourist lodge areas there, for example, something the Rwandans understand is neither good or safe.

Yet the fact is that the mountain gorilla population in Bwindi seems to be increasing faster than in the Virungas. Is ecology linked to an unfettered free market?

According to Uganda’s Minister of tourism, “’This result confirms beyond reasonable doubt that Uganda’s conservation efforts are paying off.”

Or something else.