How gorilla tourism can benefit wildlife and people

Close up of a gorilla's face

He knew they were getting close when he caught a whiff of a familiar scent. You can often smell gorillas before you see them, says WWF’s Allard Blom, managing director of WWF’s Congo Basin program. Blom was in the old-growth rain forest of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park with a group of travelers and a guide from the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

After walking through open fields and tea plantations, the group entered the forest, and the guide scanned the surroundings for broken vegetation that signifies gorilla feeding. After just 10 minutes of trekking, there they were: a troop of 13 mountain gorillas, including two powerful silverbacks and a newborn baby nestled in its mother’s arms.

Blom was part of an expedition arranged by Natural Habitat Adventures for WWF Insider Journeys, a travel program for supporters to see firsthand the positive impact WWF is making. Blom, who has extensive experience in gorilla habituation and conservation, served as the trip’s expert.

“Wandering into a family of gorillas is one of the most incredible experiences you can have in your life,” he said. “You’re not at a zoo—there’s no glass between you and the gorillas in their natural habitat.” 

Although mountain gorillas are still an endangered species, there are signs of hope for their recovery. Just a couple of decades ago, the species was on the brink of extinction due primarily to human encroachment on the rain forest. Mountain gorillas faced habitat degradation and destruction, disease transmission from human contact, injury or death from poaching traps intended for other species, and more.

Today conservation efforts have increased mountain gorilla populations to more than 1,000 individuals. Help from governments, local communities, and international lending institutions, along with WWF, made it possible to protect the forest habitat.

Working through the International Gorilla Conservation Program, WWF supports and promotes best practices for gorilla tourism. These practices ensure that the presence of tourists does not put mountain gorillas’ well-being at risk. The genetic relatedness between humans and gorillas makes gorillas especially susceptible to human pathogens—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Uganda, all travelers wore masks, washed their hands and boots, and kept their distance from the gorillas to prevent disease transmission.

Gorilla tourism also benefits local communities. WWF works to ensure economic benefits for the communities and to prevent human-wildlife conflict.

We also collaborate with—and were a founding member of—the International Gorilla Conservation Program to help establish community-owned ecolodges; promote employment of local people as porters, guides, and park rangers; and invest a portion of tourist fees in community projects. In addition, the conservation program built large rainwater harvesting tanks that give communities a reliable source of fresh water and limit the need to travel through gorilla forest habitat for water.

WWF is dedicated to securing a better future for this iconic species. Through these collaborative efforts, we aim to safeguard wildlife, support local communities, and protect the planet we call home.