As the COVID-19 pandemic (the novel coronavirus) continues to globally trend, we are experiencing how sensitive the tourism industry is and how what we formerly considered an unthinkable worldwide impact, has ultimately unfolded before our own eyes.
Countless changes in the past few weeks have happened in the travel and tourism industry around the world, and it is now only a matter of time for more.
One of such fresh changes due to COVID-19 is Uganda’s suspension of the country’s most expensive and popular form of wildlife tourism.
In a public statement released by Uganda Wildlife Authority’s (UWA) Executive Director this morning, 25th March 2020, Uganda will with immediate effect suspend primate tourism and research until 30th April 2020.
All gorilla tracking safaris, chimpanzee trekking holidays, and trips to track golden monkeys among other primates will therefore be momentarily put on hold until the end of April.
This precautious move comes as the country monitors the containment of the spread of COVID-19 and its implications to wildlife conservation and tourism in the protected areas.
Daily trackers and doctors to still access the primates
Sam Mwandha, the UWA Chief, guided that only Uganda Wildlife Authority trackers would be permitted access to the country’s fragile population of primates, as it is necessary to tightly monitor the mountain gorillas health and safety, a move that has contributed positive results for gorilla tourism in recent times.
UWA has affirmed that they will continue to provide all trackers with necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to avoid passing on any possible infection to the primates.
In the same communique, all filming of primates has also been suspended until 30th April 2020 and all UWA staff have been directed to be vigilant, wash their hands thoroughly with soap or alcohol-based solutions, and to respect social distancing recommendations to avoid contracting the COVID-19 sickness.
Uganda’s temporary shutdown of primate tourism comes after a similar halt by Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“As a result of the rapidly unfolding situation, Virunga National Park has today taken the difficult decision to temporarily close mountain gorilla tourism as of Monday 23rd March”. The statement titled “Virunga National Park Temporarily Closes Mountain Gorilla Tourism Due to COVID-19” read in part.
Mountain gorilla tourism in DR Congo will be closed until 1st June, 2020a following scientific advice that primates, including gorillas, are likely to be susceptible to complications arising from the COVID-19 virus because of the closeness in DNA similarity with humans.
FACT CHECK: In 2015, Scientists, led by researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute adjacent to the Cambridge and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, discovered that 15% of the gorilla’s genome is nearer between gorillas and humans than it is between humans and chimpanzees; man’s closest animal relative. The genomes of all three species are, regardless, extremely similar: humans and chimps share more than 98% of their genes, while humans and gorillas share more than 96%.
Following the pronouncement from DRC, Rwanda’s Development Board in similar precaution, communicated an indefinite closure of tourism and research activities with primates around the Gishwati-Mukura, Nyungwe, and Volcanoes National Parks.
It is important to however note that Rwanda’s fourth National Park, Akagera, will remain open to visitors, but guided that this would be done with the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 measures in place.
Move supported by conservationists
The break in “business as usual” comes on the grounds of relentless conservation efforts in the four National Parks of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda that have contributed to a step back from the brink of mountain gorilla extinction, influencing the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to update its Red List to lift the mountain gorilla from a critically endangered state to a less delicate state in 2018.
Suspending ecotourism around primates particularly gorilla trekking safaris and chimpanzee tracking tours is a move that has been supported by various conservationists in the three countries which protect the world’s surviving few endangered mountain gorillas.
“Minimising human-mountain gorilla interaction, and the opportunity for disease transmission, is the priority”, Africa conservation manager at WWF-UK, Cath Lawson said. He adds that the recent gains in mountain gorilla numbers could rapidly reverse if the disease is introduced, so protection is key at this critical time.
Minimising human-mountain gorilla interaction, and the opportunity for disease transmission, is a major priority at the moment.
Tourists offered redress on already booked trips
The total number of mountain gorillas currently in the world, in the high altitudes of Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo is estimated at about 1063 individuals, following the results from the Bwindi gorilla census of December 31st, 2018.
All three countries have offered lenience for tourists to reschedule their trips to future times when mobility and tourism can safely happen. Rwanda and Uganda have offered a 2-year window within which tourists can reschedule their trips at no additional cost.
I am privy to a letter received by the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) with further relaxations in UWA’s reschedule guidelines.
The relaxation of reschedule policies in Uganda and Rwanda comes on the wave of a worldwide campaign championed by tourism professionals requesting tourists not to cancel, but postpone their holidays in order to save an already limping tourism sector as a result of the worst economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Value of primate tourism to Uganda
Gorilla safaris currently attract the most revenue for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), an organization mandated to manage the country’s 10 national parks and 12 wildlife reserves.
“The money collected from the sale of mountain gorilla permits has helped us conserve these special animals as well as support the local communities living around our gorilla parks,” said Mr. Sam Mwandha, the UWA Executive Director, while speaking at the tourism stakeholders meeting in November 2019.
This goes a long way in the funding of schools, hospitals, and other community projects which uplift the livelihood of the people living around the two parks of Mgahinga and Bwindi.
Are you planning a gorilla holiday in Uganda after the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis? Check out my 5 Tips For A Stress-Free Uganda Gorilla Tracking Safari