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The Gorilla Trekking Permit Wars

The Gorilla Trekking Permit Wars


I really don’t know where I come down on this issue.  On one hand, you have a monopoly over six of 48 gorilla permits on offer in Uganda each day.  On the other hand, you have a creative public/private partnership that is giving far more financial benefit to a couple of communities than pretty much any other tourism initiative I have seen here in Uganda.

Nkuringo is a community on the border of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the home of about half of the world’s remaining highly endangered mountain gorillas.  As in so many communities around the parks here, the people living in Nkuringo were having trouble with wildlife coming out of the forest and damaging their crops.  This tends to lead to people killing wildlife to protect their food source.  People in these boundary communities also tend to see many tourists driving past their homes in nice vehicles, but receive very little financial benefit from this tourism.

To address these issues, in 2004 the International Gorilla Conservation Foundation and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) set up the Nkuringo Community Development Foundation to represent Nkuringo and Rubugiri parishes, bordering a section of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.  They were given control of a large piece of land and right of first refusal on 6 of the 8 mountain gorilla tracking permits available each day for the family of gorillas that has been habituated in the area (not all 8, as the articles below claim).

The community group was having trouble marketing the permits, so they joined in a partnership with The Uganda Safari Company.  IGCP solicited $250,000 from USAID to build a lodge in Nkuringo, and The Uganda Safari Company matched that initial investment (and have apparently put in much more subsequently).  The result was the beautiful (and pricey) Clouds Lodge, opened in 2008.  Permits and lodging tend to be sold in gorilla safari packages, so people tracking this particular family of gorillas are likely to stay at Clouds.

This raised the ire of many of the other tour operators in the country.  There are peak seasons in the year when permits need to be booked months in advance, and it is a definite advantage to any company to have a guaranteed six permits per day to offer their clients. The complaints of these other tour operators led to an investigation by the Inspector General of Government, Raphael Baku.  The resulting report was a pretty strong condemnation of the arrangement and an order to cancel the contract.

However, I have heard that the IGG report was riddled with inconsistencies and errors, and certainly there are some problems even with the information that has made it out into the news.  One of the articles states:

The NCDF, a company limited by shares, gets eight permits each day and purports to represent entire communities of Rubuguri and Nteko parishes neighbouring Bwindi Impenetrable Forest yet it is owned by only 23 people, the IGG wrote.

In fact, NCDF is not a company at all, but a registered NGO.  They have a Board of Directors consisting of 39 members, and a general assembly of 271 representing the villages in the parishes.

Another report from the New Vision Uganda stated:

Investigations by the IGG office indicated that UWA encouraged individuals to form a private company with which they operated private businesses in respect to gorilla permit tourism, edging out others.

Once again, they are either referring to NCDF, which is not a private company, or The Uganda Safari Company, which was in operation for years before it got involved with this arrangement.

One way or another, there is a lot of misinformation out there, and I think it is not unlikely that the IGG will reverse its decision.

I recognize that from a strictly business perspective, it is unfair to give an advantage to one company by offering them right of first refusal for 75% of the permits available in Nkuringo, and I’m sure some of my friends in the tourism industry here will stop talking to me for a while for even suggesting otherwise.

But here’s the thing…in 2009, the NCDF, a community-based organization representing two boundary parishes, received $40,000 through this arrangement.  That’s a lot of money.  For every single person who stays at Clouds Lodge, $35 goes to NCDF whether the lodge is turning a profit or not.  They also receive rent from the land the lodge sits on.  I am not aware of any other tourism arrangement in Uganda that funnels so much money directly into local communities (although it is possible that the Buhoma Homestead, fully owned and operated by the Buhoma community, is bringing in that much or more).

I am not making a naïve assumption that the arrangement is perfect.  Corruption is the norm here, and who knows how much of that money actually got where it was supposed to go.  I also don’t like the fact that the community group receives the money whether or not they do anything, reinforcing the handout mentality that plagues a lot of projects here.

It’s a tricky issue.  Uganda needs business development, and tour operators are fueling a growing percentage of the economy here.  There needs to be a supportive business environment to encourage them to expand.  However, most tourism here doesn’t really benefit local communities all that much. When you have an alternative tourism arrangement that seems unfair to some tour operators, but has the potential to reduce poverty in communities around Bwindi, how do you define fair?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala