Masking up for gorillas

Jacada Travel is raising awareness about wearing face masks when visiting the critically endangered mountain gorillas of Uganda and Rwanda.

A very simple change can help protect mountain gorillas from a major threat to their existence. We’re taking action – here’s why.

Human disease is a huge threat to gorilla welfare
Gorillas share 98.4% of our DNA. The second most common cause of death is an infectious disease; a common cold virus is enough to kill these already critically endangered primates. Jillian Miller, executive director of the Gorilla Organization, explains that “a simple human sneeze can travel seven metres, and gorillas have no immunity to the bugs we routinely pick up on the plane over.”

For this reason, trekkers are required to wear surgical face masks in gorilla trekking locations such as Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Odzala National Park in the Republic of Congo. Yet, this is not the case in Uganda and Rwanda, the two most popular destinations for tourists hoping to see gorillas in their natural habitat.

There are between 800 and 900 mountain gorillas left in the wild, which puts this subspecies in the ‘critically endangered’ bracket. Most of them live in the Virunga Volcanoes massif, which includes Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Mgahinga National Park in Uganda and Virunga National Park in the DRC. The remainder of the mountain gorillas live in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.

The best protection from human diseases
After hearing Dr. Gladys Kalema Zikusoka give a talk at last year’s TUSK conservation lecture in which she explained how sensitive gorillas are to human diseases, we realised that wearing face masks was a simple but effective measure we could encourage – at least amongst our own clients. Dr. Zikusoka is the founder of Conservation Through Public Health, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation focusing on mountain gorilla and human interaction around Uganda’s national parks. She claims that “wearing masks when visiting the critically endangered gorillas ensures the best protection from our human diseases.”

Although tourists are asked to not trek if they’re feeling under the weather, when one considers the time and money people have spent getting to these far-flung regions, there’s no guarantee how honest people will be.

So why aren’t masks required by the national parks of Uganda and Rwanda, as they are when visiting other primates, such as the chimps in Tanzania? Part of it is nervousness about seeming alarmist and scaring away tourists.

We decided to prove that people will not be put off visiting the gorillas by the requirement to wear a face mask, particularly when presented with the facts. Dan Bucknell, the executive director of TUSK, is an advocate of mask-wearing and states that “wearing masks is not an inconvenience: it is a simple step to safeguard the health of the mountain gorillas.”

As of January 2017, the team at Jacada Travel are equipping our travellers with surgical face masks and making sure they are fully informed of how critical it is to protect the gorillas from diseases. We’ve also been campaigning within the travel industry and encouraging other companies to follow suit to a wholly positive reaction.

Eventually, we hope that all tourists will wear masks around the gorillas, thus further reducing their risk of being infected. The trekking industry brings in a lot of money for the local communities and helps to conserve the national parks that protect the gorillas. Without tourism revenue, there would be no truly convincing argument to present local communities against killing the animals for bush meat and trophies, or flattening the forests in which they live. But for the trekking industry to continue, it must be conducted responsibly. For the privilege of seeing gorillas in the wild, ‘masking up’ is the least we can do.

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