This is to share with the general public information regarding the movement of out of Bwindi’s habituated gorilla groups, Rushegura, to DR Congo but at the same time assure the public particularly tour operators, hotel and lodge operators and the tourists themselves that UWA had long anticipated this movement and accordingly planned to ensure that there is no disruption in tourist flow and earnings. Once signs of the Rushegura group either disintegrating or changing home range were detected through our monitoring system, habituation of 2 new groups commenced. So as soon as the Rushegura group moved, as expected, UWA was already ready with another group for tourism, at Ruhija, called Bitukura and indeed bookings already started on September 1, 2008.
Mountain gorillas, gorilla gorilla beringei, are a critically endangered species found only in the greater Virunga ecosystem that transcends the international boundaries of Uganda, D R Congo and Rwanda. This very important mountain gorilla habitat is represented by Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park on the Uganda side; Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in DR Congo. The entire mountain gorilla is about 720 individuals out of which 340 are found in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Mountain gorillas like other animals and indeed even humans do move around within their habitats or range. A family will usually maintain a home range of a radius of 24 kilometers. Home ranges do overlap and sometimes fights do happen leading to migration to establish new home ranges.
And since the greater Virunga ecosystem transcends international boundaries, when migrations to establish new home ranges happens you end up with movements of the gorilla groups across boundaries. In other instances ofcourse even the 24km home range may be found in 2 countries or all 3 countries.
Movements of gorilla groups across boundaries has been happening for so many years without attracting any attention from the public just like other animals, elephants, buffaloes, topi, hippo, move between Uganda and DR Congo boarders without attracting any public attention.
However, with the development of gorilla based tourism, individual gorilla families have been habituated and are accessed by tourists at fee resulting in rather lucrative tourist earnings along the tourism chain in form of transport, accommodation food etc.
So when a habituated gorilla group moves within its 24 km home range and ends up in another country or migrates to establish another home range which ends up or happens to be in another country there is public concern arising out of possible economic loss.
In 2004 one such movement happened when the Nyakagezi group of Mgahinga moved into Rwanda and stayed for over 9 months. Earlier this group, Nyakagezi had been moving into DR Congo and Rwanda intermittently within its home range of 24km without much economic loss. The 9 months stay of Nyakakezi led to a public outcry with accusations and counter accusations.
However, the 2004 scenario led to a more positive development of advance planning and collaboration amongst the 3 wildlife agencies (UWA, ORTPN, ICCN) which have resulted in cooperation agreements to ensure proper conservation of the gorilla and minimal disruption in tourism services and earnings.
We in UWA also leant a lesson and now do undertake pro-active advance planning to mitigate against any economic losses should habituated groups cross over into another country where trekking it may be difficult.
UWA will therefore not be selling gorilla tracking permits for the Rushegura group until further notice, and tourists who had been booked to track the Rushegura group will now be allocated to the new groups.
The Rushegura family, which has been residing in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, comprises 14 individuals. It was the second family to be habituated for gorilla tourism, and for the last nearly 14 years, it has been viewed by local and international tourists on a daily basis.
It is normal behaviour for gorilla families to move from one country to another within the same ecosystem in search for food as happened with the Nyakagezi gorilla family, which has crisscrossed the Rwanda – Uganda border several times since 2004. UWA will continue to work with our counterparts in the Democratic Republic of Congo to monitor the movements and health of the Rushegura family. Early this year group 13 from Rwanda moved to Uganda and has been in Uganda till August at the same time Kwitonda from DR Congo has been in Rwanda since 2007.
As said earlier, UWA will allocate the tourists that had been booked to track the Rushegura group to other groups. Members of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) who are responsible for marketing the gorilla tracking permits have already been briefed about the emerging events, and the process of reallocation of the tourists is already on-going. We hope to absorb the visitors with minimum inconvenience to all the concerned parties and to the gorillas.
UWA would like to assure the public that there is no cause for alarm, and we reiterate our commitment to ensuring that visitors continue to get a memorable and enjoyable gorilla tracking experience.
The strategy to diversify and open up new gorilla families for tourism will be able to meet the growing international interest in gorillas, and it will ultimately boost the tourism sector in Uganda. UWA is also working very closely with the wildlife management agencies and the governments of the neighbouring countries to implement joint cross-border programs relating to wildlife management, community livelihoods and tourism.