Saving Rwanda Gorillas Through Tourism with Dr. Tara Stoinski

We caught up with Dr. Tara Stoinski, President and CEO of The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund to learn more about the threats and in celebration of World Gorilla Day.

Rwanda gorillas remain at threat largely due to their diminishing habitat and climate change. Continuing the work of the legendary Dian Fossey, who was a pioneer in gorilla conservation and research, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is the largest and longest-running organization fully dedicated to gorilla conservation. Now at the helm of the organization, Dr. Tara Stoinski, is leading the way to advocate for resources and funding to be allocated for the protection of the gorillas through anti-poaching patrols and integrated conservation initiatives. Through tourism, revenue from gorilla viewing experiences provide critical funding for the protected areas of Rwanda like Volcanoes National Park.

Learn more about how the tourism industry can work together with NGOs and government at The Regenerative Travel Summit on September 25th and hear from Eugene Mutangana, Conservation Management (Expert of Rwanda Development Board), Praveen Moman (Founder of Volcanoes Safaris) and Dr. Tara Stoinski, (President and CEO of The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund).

rwanda gorillas
Dr. Tara Stoinski serves as President and CEO and Chief Scientific Officer for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund

How did you initially become involved and begin your role with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund?

I always wanted to work with animals.  As a child, I thought I would be a vet but after visiting Africa in the early 1990s, I decided I wanted to study animal behavior instead.  I did my PhD work in Atlanta, where the Fossey Fund has its international headquarters, and soon after graduating started working with the Fossey Fund as a scientist.  I stayed in that role for 12 years and then in 2014, I became the president and CEO.  

How has Dian Fossey’s research influenced and impacted your own work?

My career in science has been focused on studying and conserving gorillas. Our efforts in Rwanda to protect “gorillas in the mist,” made famous by our founder and namesake Dian Fossey, have contributed to a rare conservation success story. Dian thought mountain gorillas would be extinct by the year 2000, but instead, they are coming back from the brink, with their numbers slowly but steadily growing over the last three decades. So her work to conserve gorillas has had a huge direct impact on my work—without her, there might not be mountain gorillas to study today.  

Dian Fossey pioneered the study of individually known mountain gorillas—that type of detailed study was in its infancy in the 1960s, and it transformed what we understood of gorilla society.  Previously they had been thought of as King Kong like, ferocious beasts. Instead, thanks to Dian’s work, they now have the nickname “gentle giant.” The daily observation of gorillas that Dian started in 1967 continues today, making it one of the longest-running studies of any animal. And as a result, much of what we know about mountain gorillas comes from the research done at Karisoke. Certainly, in terms of my career as a scientist, the research by Dian and all the scientists who worked at Karisoke was fundamental to me learning about the biology and behavior of species and developing my own research questions.

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A gorilla seen on a Volcano Safari in Rwanda | Photo by: Black Bean Production

What is currently the greatest threat to the gorillas’ survival?

The threats to gorillas vary depending on the subspecies.  Mountain gorillas, which live in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are primarily threatened by their very small habitat and population size, which means that one disease epidemic or natural disaster could have catastrophic effects. Luckily, mountain gorillas are not targeted directly by poachers, but unfortunately, they can get caught in snares set for other animals.  So poaching is an indirect threat. However, for the Grauer’s gorillas, which are only found in eastern DR Congo, direct poaching for food is their top threat, and is responsible for the loss of 80% or four out of every five Grauer’s gorillas over the last 20 years.

Another looming threat to gorillas, and to biodiversity around the globe, is climate change. But gorillas can also help in the fight against climate change. Gorillas inhabit the Congo basin, the second largest tropical rainforest in the world. It stretches across six countries, from the DR Congo in the east all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. We at the Fossey Fund currently work with local communities to protect 1,300 square kilometers of this forest in the DR Congo. Not just for wildlife, but for the sake of humanity itself, we need this forest to remain intact and healthy. It serves as the “lungs” of our planet: The trees in this rainforest absorb carbon dioxide from the air, slowing the advance of climate change. Gorillas, and the thousands of other species that live in these forests, play a role in maintaining the health of these ecosystems. Think of gorillas as gardeners—they spread seeds by eating, distribute fertilizer through defecating, and help shape plant communities through their foraging and nest building behaviors.  Healthy ecosystems also help prevent pandemics like what we are experiencing now—see my recent CNN OP ED

Human exploitation of the earth’s remaining wild places, like the Congo basin, is destroying habitats at an unprecedented rate. In 2017 alone, the planet lost 39 million acres of tropical rainforest—the equivalent of 40 football fields each minute. We are also decimating wildlife populations, with more than one million species now threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In order to ensure a future for Rwanda gorillas — and, frankly, for humans—we need to reverse this trajectory.

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A baby gorilla in Rwanda | Photo by: Alexandra Avila

How does tourism support gorilla conservation activities and research?

Revenue from gorilla tourism provides critical funding for the protected areas of Rwanda like Volcanoes National Park. And it also helps the local human population. The Rwandan government shares 10% of the permit fees to see the gorillas with local communities, which helps to address their basic needs. Tourism also provides employment and other sources of income. So it is a key component of gorilla conservation and the overall economy in Rwanda.

In addition, tourism increases international awareness of the importance of protecting gorillas and their habitat. As gorilla tourism has risen in popularity, the gorilla has become a symbol of pride for the people of Rwanda—and Rwanda gorillas have become a literal symbol as well, gracing Rwandan visas and some bank notes.

What are some of the dangers linked to gorilla viewing and what measures have been implemented to prevent disease transmission? How will this change in light of COVID-19?

Tourism plays a critical role in gorilla conservation. But it is not without risks. We share 98% of our DNA with gorillas. This is, of course, one of the reasons we find gorillas so endlessly fascinating and worthy of protection. But it also puts gorillas at risk of contracting human diseases, particularly respiratory diseases like COVID.

The Rwandan government, through the Rwanda Development Board, has very strict measures in place for tourists who visit the gorillas. Each Rwanda gorillas are only visited once per day by a maximum of eight tourists (now six during COVID) for a maximum time of an hour. Recommendations for gorilla tourists have always been to maintain a distance of seven meters—which is the distance air droplets from a sneeze or cough can travel through the air. However, these distances are often violated during tourist visits, putting the gorillas at risk. 

Since COVID-19, the recommendation has been to maintain a seven to 10 meter distance from the gorillas. In addition, anyone going into the forest—tourist, researcher, tracker—is required to wear a mask and undergo a daily health check. Trackers are working in rotations where they are isolated from the larger community to minimize the risk that they are exposed to COVID-19.

A gorilla in Virunga National Park | Photo by: Alexandra Avila

What is the greatest challenge in your work to save the gorillas?

As with conservation as a whole, one of the biggest challenges is resources. It is estimated that less than 3% of charitable giving in the United States is directed toward environmental charities. Given the immense threats facing the natural world—more than 1 million species threatened with the risk of extinction—we need to drastically increase the resources available if we want iconic species like gorillas and elephants to survive. Unfortunately, protection and research are expensive. It costs a lot to keep trackers in the field 365 days a year, monitoring the health and well-being of the gorillas; to keep our anti-poaching patrols out in the forests, watching for signs of illegal activity and dismantling the snares that can injure or kill the gorillas; to conduct the scientific research that helps us find ways to protect not just gorillas, but the other plants and animals that share their biodiverse habitat.  You can learn more about our integrated approach to conservation here.  We are fortunate to have not just committed team members, but also a large group of dedicated donors and other supporters who keep our mission moving forward.

The good news is that conservation can work—mountain gorillas have been pulled back from the brink of extinction through decades of “extreme conservation,” which focuses on daily protection of individual gorillas and their families. This painstaking and cost-intensive effort has moved the needle such that in 2018, mountain gorillas were reclassified from critically endangered to endangered, one small step further from extinction. But there is a lot of work still to be done, and we can’t let up.

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