Science - May 6, 2004

Wageningen students help gorillas get used to people

It took many years and a lot of patience, but Wageningen researchers working together with the Worldwide Fund for Nature have managed to get lowland gorillas used to having people near them. This should help countries such as the Central African Republic to build up their ecotourism business.

It took more than three years, but students and ecologists have seen the aggression first shown by the gorillas replaced by indifference. “Now they just ignore us,” say ecologists Dr Arend Brunsting and Professor Herbert Prins of the Tropical Nature Conservation and Vertebrate Ecology group, who published their findings recently in the International Journal of Primatology.

Students were sent to study the gorillas in the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park in the Central African Republic. These giant primates hide themselves away in the tropical rainforest, where they build their nests high in the trees. Other researchers had already been successful in getting mountain gorillas in Uganda used to people, but the lowland gorillas were a new challenge. The first biology students who were sent into the jungle did not have an easy time of it. Without the help of the local Baaka pygmy people, who are known for their tracking skills, they would not have found the gorillas in the first place. The gorillas exhibited threatening behaviour, drumming on their chest and vocalising. Fortunately the students returned home safely, although one Baaka was bitten by a gorilla.

Year in year out, groups of students went to Africa to seek out contact with the gorillas, coming as close as ten metres, in the hope that the gorillas would become accustomed to their primate cousins. In the end it worked, but they learned that it was important not to try and be secretive. Everyone has to announce their presence clearly by ‘tongue clacking’ as the gorillas do themselves.

The research was done with a view to ecotourism. Brunsting: “If you want to make something of ecotourism in Africa you have to come up with a speciality. New areas have to compete with other countries that offer safaris to see big game like lions and elephants.” Gorilla tourism looks like becoming a valuable alternative that should attract many tourists, as long as a number of issues are respected. The gorillas should be allowed to get used to people first by well-trained people such as park rangers or biologists, and humans should not get closer than ten metres to the animals. Brunsting warns that there is also a chance of the Ebola virus being transmitted from gorillas to humans.

Hugo Bouter

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