Blazing new trails: Can ecotourism save Central Africa’s iconic wildlife?

We leave the park headquarters by jeep, following a pickup loaded with armed rangers, their booted feet dangling over the sides of the truck bed. For an hour, our vehicles climb the narrow, winding dirt road through tea plantations and eucalyptus groves until we arrive at a wall of forest.

We continue on foot, the temperature noticeably dropping as we step through a curtain of green into the trees’ shade. Our group — four Western visitors and several local NGO staff — troops after our guide and the ecoguards accompanying us as we scramble up, stoop under and slide over the thick foliage, keeping an eye out for whipping branches, protruding roots and snakes. It’s another hour before we come across evidence of the target of our search: some steaming piles of dung, full of seeds from the fruit scattered across our machete-made trail.

Another hour goes by, and I’m soaked with mud and sweat, leaning on a makeshift walking stick. Then as we stumble down another hill into a marshy clearing filled with tall grasses, I finally spot what we’ve come here to see: a family of eastern lowland gorillas, basking in the sunshine.

I’m in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a World Heritage Site nestled in the hills of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). By all appearances, this place should be a tourist’s dream: green, misty mountains, rippling lakes, cool weather and — most importantly — the only place in the world where tourists can see eastern lowland gorillas in the wild. Yet compared with neighboring Rwanda, whose mountain-gorilla fueled tourism industry now sports luxury eco-lodges and injects millions of dollars into the economy each year, the DRC’s fledgling wildlife tourism business has been thwarted by decades-long insecurity in the country’s east, limited infrastructure, high costs and Ebola outbreaks.

“When you Google DRC, all you see is news about women being raped, stories about war,” Gloria Mwenge Bitomwa, who leads Kahuzi-Biega’s tourism program, laments. “We’d like people to come and discover what is here apart from war, apart from all these tragic incidents. We’d like them to come and discover that we have all this rich biodiversity.”

Ecotourism may be the best hope for saving Central Africa’s rainforest — the world’s second-largest — by providing a long-term source of income that could spur communities and countries to protect it. But is it possible to meet the needs of wildlife, local people and tourists all at once? By boosting sustainable tourism development and enabling knowledge sharing between Central African parks, the U.S. government-funded Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE) is working to maximize that chance.

Young mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park, DRC. Despite instability in the region, the park has been the country's most successful tourism site to date, with 10,000 visitors in 2017. (Photo by Olivia Freeman/U.S. Forest Service International Programs)
Young mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park, DRC. Despite instability in the region, the park has been the country’s most successful tourism site to date, with 10,000 visitors in 2017. (Photo by Olivia Freeman/U.S. Forest Service International Programs)

From cost to opportunity

In addition to charismatic species such as great apes and forest elephants, the Congo Basin is home to millions of people whose families have lived off it for generations, hunting and gathering forest products such as honey, wild fruits and medicinal plants.

But as the area’s human population has expanded, the forest has been chipped away at an astonishing rate given that most people are armed with axes, not bulldozers. Satellite data analysis supported by the CARPE partnership has indicated that between 2000 and 2014, this region lost a chunk of forest the size of Bangladesh — and wildlife numbers have shrunk even more dramatically. These patterns will continue until both governments and individuals are convinced that the forest can be more valuable intact than cleared and fragmented through industrial activities like mining and logging.

With political stability and the right investment, the DRC could be the next frontier of ecotourism — and a prime destination for visitors looking for an adventure off the typical tourist trail.

Historically, many communities in and near Central Africa’s protected areas have felt excluded from their management and exempt from their benefits. According to a recent CARPE-partner survey conducted in four protected areas in the Virunga-Bwindi mountain range on the borders of DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, human-wildlife conflict was cited as the biggest cost of the parks to communities, who complained that wildlife such as elephants, forest buffalo and apes raided their crops.

The good news is that these animals can be transformed from a cost into an opportunity. Countries such as Rwanda, Costa Rica and South Africa have shown that ecotourism can have a measurable impact on national economies. In fact, research  shows that iconic species can be worth exponentially more alive than dead, as evidenced by numerous studies on sharks and dive tourism.

With political stability and the right investment, the DRC could be the next frontier of ecotourism — and a prime destination for visitors looking for an adventure off the typical tourist trail.

Due to the park’s incredible natural heritage, including one of the last populations of eastern lowland gorillas, Kahuzi-Biega was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. (Photo by Roni Ziade)
Due to the park’s incredible natural heritage, including one of the last populations of eastern lowland gorillas, Kahuzi-Biega was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. (Photo by Roni Ziade)

Getting there

Ecoguards lead the way from Kahuzi-Biega’s park headquarters toward the forest where the gorillas live. (Video by Molly Bergen/ WCS/WWF/WRI)

Today, reaching Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is easy, only a few hours’ drive on paved roads that wind through the terraced hills from the capital Kigali. In contrast, the journey to Kahuzi-Biega in DRC provides a glimpse of what it used to be like in Rwanda. Currently, tourists who want to visit Kahuzi-Biega must first get to the nearby city of Bukavu, requiring either a 3.5-hour ferry trip down Lake Kivu from the Congolese city of Goma or driving over the border from Rwanda. Then they must hire a car to drive them the 40 kilometers to the park headquarters in Tshivanga — a journey whose costs and stresses may deter many would-be tourists.

Still, it used to be worse. “The political situation has changed,” says Mwenge, referring to a drop in the presence of armed groups around the park’s gorilla habitat. “Now it’s safe. It’s not like 10 years back, where people could fear even reaching to the headquarters.”

Security remains an issue at other parks in the DRC. Virunga National Park — Africa’s oldest and most biodiverse park — has been the country’s most successful tourism site to date, hosting 10,000 visitors in 2017. However, the May 2018 kidnapping of two tourists and their driver (and the subsequent death of an ecoguard trying to protect them) resulted in Virunga being temporarily closed until the safety of its guests can be guaranteed.

Setting up camp

Maintaining the quality and safety of public roads may fall outside the purview of protected area managers and NGOs, but many activities are underway to improve the visitors’ experience once they arrive at these parks.

“Tourism is a chain of activities,” Mwenge says. “Every client needs a hotel, he needs transport, he needs to eat. To reach the park, he needs guides, which mostly come from the communities. He can pay porters, which are also from the community. All of this has an impact on the town’s economy.”

Although gorilla trekking is the main tourist draw in Kahuzi-Biega, restrictions on the number of tourists who can visit each gorilla family per day currently limits the park’s tourism potential. Therefore, ICCN — the French acronym for the DRC’s protected area authority — and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) — which provides technical support for the park’s management — are looking to expand the range of activities available to guests to prolong their visits and bring in more income. Upon WCS’s request, in 2016 the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) brought staff from Kahuzi-Biega to Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park to learn about the latter’s range of tourist excursions, including hiking, chimp trekking and birdwatching. The park staff exchanged experiences on subjects ranging from primate tracking to how best to teach visitors about local customs. Since then, Kahuzi-Biega has also hosted staff from Nyungwe as well as Volcanoes National Park (also in Rwanda) to observe the Congolese park’s gorilla program.

Kahuzi-Biega has already made strides in developing tourist activities outside gorilla trekking. With at least 349 types of birds, 42 of which are found nowhere else, the protected area could become a birdwatching destination. In 2018, the USFS hired local residents to restore old hiking trails, some of which were known to be good for birding. Meanwhile, WCS designed new trail signage and built two campsites; the World Bank has also funded construction of several bungalows. These facilities allow guests to stay overnight instead of making the journey back to Bukavu.  

Similarly, in nearby Virunga National Park in DRC, the USFS and ICCN are constructing a new, easier hiking trail up Nyiragongo, an active volcano that previously required visitors to undergo a steeper, grueling hike and overnight camp in order to peek into its fiery depths.

To see this view of Mount Nyiragongo, visitors to Virunga National Park currently must endure a grueling hike and overnight stay. The U.S. Forest Service is collaborating with the Virunga Foundation, ICCN and nearby communities to build a new trail that is less strenuous and therefore accessible to more visitors from near and far. (Photo by Eva McNamara, USFS-IP)
To see this view of Mount Nyiragongo, visitors to Virunga National Park currently must endure a grueling hike and overnight stay. The U.S. Forest Service is collaborating with the Virunga Foundation, ICCN and nearby communities to build a new trail that is less strenuous and therefore accessible to more visitors from near and far. (Photo by Eva McNamara, USFS-IP)

“One objective of constructing this trail is to improve the relationship between the park and the local community by creating new income-generating opportunities through trail construction and maintenance, as well as future porter and guiding opportunities,” Olivia Freeman, the DRC country coordinator of the USFS, explains.

The mere presence of this trail should also help the park curtail illegal poaching and charcoal production activities nearby. “While we were out working on these trails, we encountered several charcoal operations, as well as some poaching snares,” Freeman says. “Having increased and consistent ranger presence should greatly reduce these activities.”(Trail-building isn’t an easy task; get a glimpse in the short video below.)

Preparing apes for houseguests

One challenge of setting up a tourism site that revolves around wildlife? Making sure the wildlife is ready for visitors.

In the case of great apes, it can take researchers years to habituate or acclimate them to human presence. One factor is their social structure; chimpanzees and their close relatives, bonobos, constantly change group composition, making it difficult for researchers to follow individuals. In addition, animals used to being hunted or getting caught in snares intended for other species may take longer to overcome their fears.

Jonas Eriksson is a primatologist with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) who is beginning the process of habituating a population of bonobos in Salonga National Park, a remote protected area in central DRC that aims to eventually bring in paying visitors for a rare chance at seeing the threatened apes in the wild.

“Bonobos vocalize when they build their nests, and that’s the way you start habituation,” he explains. After locating the bonobos, researchers return to their nesting site the following morning before the animals awaken. “By 4:00 the next morning, you’re underneath their nests. You don’t talk, but you announce your presence by making familiar noises, like slowly ripping leaves so they know that you’re there. And of course, they just take off in the beginning. But you repeat this process. And after a year or so, they get a little bit more tolerant, and slowly you start following them.”

As our close relatives, great apes are susceptible to many of the same diseases as humans; for example, as much as one-third of gorillas may have been wiped out by Ebola. To prevent the spread of disease in both directions, it’s now common practice for all visitors to wear surgical masks in the presence of great apes.

Habituating wild animal populations makes it easier to study animal behavior, jumpstarting a cycle of increased tourism opportunity and scientific knowledge. Closer observation of species interacting with their environment provides valuable research information and is an important tool for fighting wildlife poaching in protected areas. And by using GPS devices to enter the locations of species sightings into a database, researchers help shed light on the animals’ movement patterns, making it easier to find them each day and thus improving the tourists’ experience.

Research continues to better understand how tourism activities could impact great apes. For example, in Gabon’s Loango National Park, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is partnering with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology to further develop tourism around Critically Endangered western lowland gorillas and monitor its impact on gorilla groups. 

Building skills and changing attitudes

Trail construction and maintenance have already brought in income for communities near Kahuzi-Biega. But other tourism-focused jobs will require new skills. USFS and WCS have trained several park staff as birdwatching guides; others have received marketing coaching to improve the park’s website and create new promotional materials that cater to foreign tourists.

Other training may come further down the road as tourism ramps up. At the headquarters of Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda lies perhaps the most telltale evidence of tourists’ presence: a gift shop. The store sells the expected wares — wooden gorilla carvings, T-shirts — but also more unique products, including colorful baskets woven by local women.

Through CARPE support, these women — members of the COOPAV artisan cooperative — initiated and conducted a study tour of other successful cooperatives in the region to explore new potential products to make and sell. Within three months, COOPAV put four new products — inspired by their tour but distinctly their own — on the tourist market. Now, baskets made by Rwandan women are sold not only in the park gift shop and nearby tourist centers, but also in some external markets such as Barcelona.

Left: The Volcanoes National Park gift shop in Kinigi, Rwanda sells a range of locally made items, from gorilla carvings to woven baskets. Right: A local co-op member poses with one of her baskets for sale in the shop. This handicraft industry was bolstered by a knowledge exchange with other co-ops in the region. (Photos by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)
Left: The Volcanoes National Park gift shop in Kinigi, Rwanda sells a range of locally made items, from gorilla carvings to woven baskets. Right: A local co-op member poses with one of her baskets for sale in the shop. This handicraft industry was bolstered by a knowledge exchange with other co-ops in the region. (Photos by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)

Providing jobs and income may be the quickest way to convince nearby communities of the value of a protected area and its wildlife. But another long-term goal could also help: changing local attitudes to foster the desire to conserve natural heritage.

African protected areas have long been accused of being created for Westerners rather than local communities — a perception that needs to shift for the parks’ long-term survival. In Kahuzi-Biega, Congolese visitors can go gorilla trekking for only $30, compared with the $400 fee for foreigners (still considerably cheaper than the current $1500 price tag in Rwanda). However, even this reduced price is prohibitive for most locals, and underscores the need to make the park more accessible to potential backyard tourists.

Lambert Cirimwami Mongane, a gorilla tour guide in Kahuzi-Biega, examines gorilla dung in the park. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)
Lambert Cirimwami Mongane, a gorilla tour guide in Kahuzi-Biega, examines gorilla dung in the park. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)
ICCN staff and ecoguards practice their bird identification skills at a training facilitated by the U.S. Forest Service in Kahuzi-Biega. (Photo by Olivia Freeman/U.S. Forest Service International Programs)
ICCN staff and ecoguards practice their bird identification skills at a training facilitated by the U.S. Forest Service in Kahuzi-Biega. (Photo by Olivia Freeman/U.S. Forest Service International Programs)
Gloria Mwenge Bitomwa, who leads Kahuzi-Biega’s tourism program, at the entrance to a newly restored birding trail near the park’s tourist bungalows. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)
Gloria Mwenge Bitomwa, who leads Kahuzi-Biega’s tourism program, at the entrance to a newly restored birding trail near the park’s tourist bungalows. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)

Kahuzi-Biega’s new birdwatching trails fulfill this purpose. “Now with the trails, we are having more Congolese coming,” Mwenge says. “Because we only charge $2 for them to come and do trails.” In 2018, the park received 1,500 visitors, 870 of whom were Congolese.

This is also one of the intended outcomes of the new hiking trail being constructed up Nyiragongo Volcano in Virunga. “Construction of the new community trail will provide an alternative route up the volcano that is less steep and therefore less physically demanding,” Freeman says. “The primary goal is to provide an easier route that can be used by local school groups, allowing students to visit the rim of the volcano and return in the same day.” New signs providing ecological information along the trail will help them learn more about this unique ecosystem in their backyards.

What’s next

The DRC’s tourism industry has a long way to go to become an economic driver similar to Rwanda’s, which made $400 million in 2016 and has been tied to a reduction in harmful activities within Volcanoes, such as bamboo cutting inside the park. Other activities have played a role as well, including the construction and maintenance of a wall to keep the park’s crop-raiding forest buffalo out of farmers’ fields.

In order for the industry to be financially viable and welcomed by local communities, several key ingredients must be in place. “If there is good governance, if there is transparency, if people are given the tools and the resources they need, the ecotourism model can be very effective,” says Anna Behm Masozera, the director of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, a coalition that receives CARPE funding. “It can improve household livelihoods as well as attitudes toward the park and conservation overall.”

Improving marketing is also important. Right now, few outside the DRC have even heard of Kahuzi-Biega, despite the world-class gorilla viewing experience it offers to tourists looking for a true adventure. Virunga’s fame and historic tourism success, despite interruptions from civil wars and other periods of instability, reveal the huge global appetite for great ape tourism — and all that is possible if these parks continue to receive investment.

By supporting work in protected areas at various stages in their tourism development, CARPE is helping all these parks learn from others’ success and increase the likelihood that Rwanda’s experience will be the norm, not the exception. And in fact, some signs of progress have been across borders. For example, there has been an uptick in eastern lowland gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega’s tourist areas, and mountain gorilla numbers (including populations in DRC, Rwanda and Uganda) have topped 1,000 individuals, enough of an increase to cause the subspecies to be “downgraded” from Critically Endangered to Endangered — a step in the right direction.

About the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE)

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) CARPE program supports initiatives to improve the management of the Congo Basin’s biodiversity and natural resources. Since 1995, the program has invested millions of dollars in protecting the massive forest sometimes called Earth’s “second lung” while providing local people with economic alternatives to overexploiting it. 

CARPE is implemented in collaboration with African Parks, African Wildlife Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the University of Maryland, the Wildlife Conservation Society, World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund and other partners. Learn more

Video clips at top of page: silverback eastern lowland gorilla in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DRC (credit: Molly Bergen/WCS/WWF/WRI); lava bubbles up from Mount Nyiragongo in DRC’s Virunga National Park (credit: U.S. Forest Service International Programs); a woman weaves a basket to be sold at the gift shop in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park (credit: Molly Bergen/WCS/WWF/WRI); Lake Kivu at sunset (credit: U.S. Forest Service International Programs); visitors document an eastern lowland gorilla in Kahuzi-Biega (credit: Molly Bergen/ WCS/WWF/WRI); building a new hiking trail in Virunga National Park (credit: U.S. Forest Service International Programs); tourists return from hiking the volcano trail in Virunga National Park (credit: U.S. Forest Service International Programs); a man steers a pirogue (dugout canoe) near Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, Republic of Congo (credit: Zanne Labuschagne/WCS).

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