April 17, 2024 The Best Source of News, Culture, Lifestyle for Culver City, Mar Vista, Del Rey, Palms and West Los Angeles

The Value of Ecotourism

Recently returned from a three-month journey studying the primates in Africa, Brentwood resident Katie Hall gives Westside Today her story.


I have just returned from a three-month term as a field assistant in the Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda, collecting data on chimpanzee stress response to human impact on the forest. As a primate researcher, I can easily say that human encroachment on the forest ecosystem, whether through logging, hunting, growing crops on the forest edge, and other factors, are detrimental to the health and wellbeing of all forest inhabitants.
So it may come as a surprise to say that the future of the endangered chimpanzees, gorillas, golden monkeys, and other animals may depend on humans entering the forest—through ecotourism.

Katie Hall

During the course of my research, I visited four forest sites in Northwestern Uganda, each with different levels of human activity impacting the chimpanzees. Busingiro is heavily affected by illegal logging; Sonso is strictly a research station; Kaniyo-Pabidi, a pristine forest, is used for ecotourism; and Kasokwa is a tiny fragment between fields of sugar cane, major roads and several villages.

I spent most of my time in Kasokwa, 70 hectares of degraded forest overgrown with invasive lantana (the only trees left are those not wanted by loggers). The 14 chimpanzees that inhabit the area make the perfect case study for population bottleneck: Most chimpanzee groups in pristine forest travel in groups of 25-50 but socialize with a network as large as 100 individuals; with a group so small, inbreeding is inevitable.

I came to know the 14 chimpanzees of Kasokwa very well throughout the three months, learning to recognize them by their faces and other remarkable features, and by their voices. Four of these 14 individuals suffer from snare injuries: Wire snares are set to trap smaller animals for meat, but chimps often travel on the ground and occasionally get caught. While not always fatal, the injuries sustained can cause long-term damage. Limbs are lost, reducing climbing ability, feeding and social grooming, leaving individuals emaciated, ill and lonely.

Clearly, humans have a very negative impact here. They need the land to grow their crops; they need the water from the stream to drink and wash clothing; they need vegetation to graze their cattle.

But chimpanzees and gorillas especially are a source of national pride (not to mention income) in Uganda, and their conservation is significant to community development projects. Furthermore, both species offer us an opportunity to reflect on our evolutionary heritage.

While it breaks my heart to admit that Kasokwa may be a lost cause in terms of conservation, there is still hope in the many forest areas protected by ecotourism. Kaniyo-Pabidi, Kibale, Semliki, Kyambura Gorge, Bwindi and Mgahinga all offer the opportunity to view majestic chimps and gorillas in their natural habitat.

Tourists pay as much as $500 for one hour with the gorillas; this sounds expensive, but it is worth every penny in terms of conservation and local economic development. Without the income generated through ecotourism, guards cannot be hired to enforce National Park boundaries. Local villagers then cut trees for firewood or building and hunt animals for personal consumption or for the commercial bush-meat trade.

The profits earned from eco-tourism contribute to building sustainable projects within local communities. The results include enhancing farming skills, water sanitation projects, and building schools and hospitals. These amenities ease pressure about providing some basic infrastructure and services. In addition, locals have come to respect the endangered species with which they share space.

Without tourist dollars, chimps, gorillas and other species are likely doomed. While bringing more people into the forest is not good for the animals, this is nevertheless the best opportunity to learn more about the species, their feeding choices, social habits and most importantly, the dangers they face from the human front. The likelihood of anyone donating $500 is slim. This way, tourists have an interactive educational opportunity, the community receives the economic benefit and the animals are further insulated from human encroachment.

Conservation is a by-product of tourism. And tourism is not all bad. Without ecotourism, chimps all over Uganda would be suffering as much as my friends in Kasokwa. Consider an educational, eco-friendly adventure for your next vacation. It is a way to learn more, contribute to conservation and still promote economic development in surrounding communities.

Katie Hall is a recent graduate of UCSD and has had a lifelong fascination with primates. She starts her PhD. at St. Andrews University in Scotland this fall, where she will study primatology.

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