Gorilla Tourism in Dzanga-Sangha–A 17-year story–that continues

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The Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas (DSPA) located in the south western Central African Republic (CAR) and the northern edge of the Congo basin is managed by the CAR government, with significant financial and technical support from WWF. The 4,579 km2 DSPA is an area of exceptional regional and international. Since the early 1990s, DSPA runs an ecotourism programme to valorize its exceptional biodiversity and natural resources as well as showcase the traditional cultures and customs of the local people. 

As part of the DSPA Ecotourism Programme, a Primate Habituation Programme (PHP) was launched in 1997 with the main aim to habituate western lowland gorillas for tourism and research. To date, the PHP has successfully habituated three western lowland gorilla (WLG) groups while two additional groups are presently undergoing habituation. The PHP employs 60 local people as trackers (the Ba’Aka) and guides, based in two forest camps; Bai Hokou and Mongambe. Apart from being a source of employment to the local people the programme plays a vital role in DSPA’s management strategy by generating significant revenue and strengthening the vital link with the community, hence acting as an important conservation tool. Up to 2011 the PHP received about 550 tourists annually; including film crews and international journalists. Additionally, extensive research has been carried out from the PHP sites, resulting in numerous scientific publications. By 2012, gorilla tracking fees covered about 75% of the direct operational costs of the PHP and projections showed that the programme could potentially become self-sustainable by 2016. Gorilla tourism at Dzanga-Sangha thus can be considered one of the most successful WLG tourism and research programme in central Africa. 

However, despite the seemingly suitable conditions for a perennially flourishing and financially profitable eco-tourism programme, instability has overwhelmed the CAR for nearly 2 decades with multiple coup d’état attempts and over the last two years, the worst violence ever witnessed by this generation of CAR citizens. Besides significant operational challenges due to urgent security concerns, tourist numbers in DSPA dwindled to zero. Consequently, the PHP, which largely depends on gorilla tracking fees, was unable to fully cover its operational costs. However, the two gorilla camps maintained at least a minimal level of functioning in order to ensure continuous follows of the gorillas, thereby avoiding an abrupt cessation to critical gorilla surveillance activities. 

With the above challenges it might be debated as to whether or not it is worth struggling to assure the continuous functioning of the PHP under such challenging circumstances. However, numerous arguments for supporting the project’s continuation emerge especially as calm slowly returned to the region. Indeed it can thus also be argued that the PHP is a treasure to be jealously guarded, even through the most difficult periods imaginable.

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