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“War does not determine who is right,” wrote Bertrand Russell, “only who is left.” Mountain gorillas are one of the strongest, toughest animals on the planet. But the fallout from inhabiting the same land as human populations means they’re only just hanging in there.

Trekking with gorillas in Rwanda

Mountain gorillas are down to an army of under a thousand – estimates put it at 782 in the wild – spread across three rainforests in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite their incredible prowess, mountain gorillas are the collateral damage in the region’s various conflicts, and victims of irresponsible human behaviour. This includes accidental snaring in traps set for other wildlife, and in some cases hunting or the targeted snatching of baby gorillas as pets. Another threat is the destruction of the rainforests by the local mining and farming industries. Other times, the region’s biggest beasts are caught in the crossfire of the region’s perpetual wars between humans.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature ranks the mountain gorilla, also known as the eastern gorilla, as a critically endangered species. Typically found in groups of around twenty on the region’s volcanic slopes, they are slightly bigger and hairier than the three remaining gorilla subspecies. Led by one dominant male – known as ‘silverbacks’ because of the strands of grey hair that adorn their backs – no amount of chest beating or displays of physical power can warn off the threats to their existence.

Time to act

But humans are coming to realise our responsibility to protect our innocent primate cousins through a series of conservation programmes, awareness campaigns and philanthropic tourism.  Since the World Wildlife Federation launched its campaign to preserve the mountain gorilla in 1991, the population has increased by 10%, pulling it a tiny step further away from extinction. The WWF continues to work with governments and park staff to monitor individual mountain gorillas. They’re also involved in efforts to help local communities consider the mountain gorilla in providing sustainable resources.

In one of the world’s more perverse ironies, well-meaning tourists often contribute to the destruction of the wildlife they are appreciating. One of the most sickening examples of this is in the DRC last year, where anti-government rebels boasted of raising money for their war-chest by charging unsuspecting foreigners for tours of the mountain gorilla’s natural habitat. Needless to say, the tourists’ actions had the unintentional consequence of prolonging a conflict which is helping to obliterate the species they were admiring.

But it doesn’t have to be the case that man – especially the naïve foreigner – destroys the thing he loves. The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in southwest Uganda is home to around half the world’s remaining mountain gorillas. In this UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are tour operators such as Sanctuary Retreats who give nature lovers a chance to appreciate the wonderful species on their gorilla trekking ventures, while also helping to sustain both its natural habitat and the species itself. Guided by experts from the region, travellers are allowed to appreciate the mountain gorilla – and the many other species of animal and plant life unique to the region – without damaging their natural habitat.

 

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