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Uganda to launch `Friend a gorilla`

Last Updated: Saturday, September 26, 2009 - 10:48

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Uganda): Uganda is poised to launch a scheme to allow gorilla lovers short of time or money to visit the endangered apes to become virtual friends with them on the net, officials said.

Thanks to a system of cameras placed in this forest in the extreme south-west of the country, enthusiasts will be able to watch the gorillas feed, charge through the undergrowth and maybe even give birth, Moses Mapesa Wafula, the head of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), said.

The "Friend a Gorilla" project will be launched officially on Saturday in Kampala and cost just one dollar a year for enthusiasts.

The money generated will help with mountain gorilla conservation.

"Because we cannot physically satisfy global demand to track gorillas we have decided to use technology and bring these gorillas into the sitting rooms of people around the globe, by positioning cameras in the wild," Wafula added.

Uganda already has seven groups of gorillas habituated to tourists. An eighth, the Nshongi group, made up of 34 individuals, is to be introduced later Thursday.

The habituated animals account for only 23 percent of Uganda`s gorilla population.

"We`re being conservative because the most important thing with the gorillas is their own safety. They are vulnerable to diseases, especially airborne diseases," the UWA head said.

There is little chance that internet tracking will supplant the real thing, UWA officials say, as sitting in front of a screen does not give the visitor the adrenalin rush of being charged by a silverback nor the thrill of watching a female play with her baby.

Nor does it give you the breathtaking views from the road up the mountain into the forest.

Uganda has been careful to ensure that local communities around the forest benefit from gorilla trekking, recognising that this is the only way to keep villagers from hunting in the forest or clearing it, two practices that threaten the gorillas` habitat.

In addition to a 20 percent share of national park entry fees, local communities run some of the accommodation around Bwindi and sell some of their crops to the more top-end lodges and tented camps.

In Rushaga village, next to one of the park entrances, villagers remember the days when they would be publicly caned by UWA rangers if they were found setting foot in the forest.

Kamari and his friends, gathered at the village`s only bar, are now fully aware of the benefits of gorilla tourism for local communities -- the road linking Rushaga to the nearest town has just been resurfaced.

In 2008, some 600,000 gorilla enthusiasts came to Uganda specifically to see the gorillas, paying 500 dollars each to spend an hour or so tracking the apes through dense -- and often wet and slippery -- forest.

Gorilla tracking does not come cheap, since on top of the permit the tourist has to pay for car hire and accommodation. Gorilla tourism is Uganda`s second biggest foreign-currency earner.

Uganda is home to some 340 of the world`s estimated 720 highly endangered mountain gorillas. The animals are found only in Bwindi and in the Virunga mountains on the border of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Bureau Report

First Published: Saturday, September 26, 2009 - 10:48
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