Where the pen is mightier than the machete

Thursday, 6 April 2000

Nature can usually cope with extremes. Deluge and drought, feast and famine can mostly be survived, but for the Great Apes of equatorial Africa, the flood of tourists that once threatened to engulf them has dwindled to a trickle that may no longer sustain them.

For decades, the apes were threatened by loss of habitat, hunting and, because of their close relationship to us, human disease. During the past few years, ecotourism has been the apes' salvation. It brought prosperity to local communities and protection to the apes. As long as they survived, rich tourists came. Then too many came.

At some sites in Uganda, up to 150 people would compete for the 6 places in an observation party. They offered huge bribes to get closer to the mountain gorillas and, at the end of scheduled viewing periods, they refused to leave.

It was a problem that bothered Carla Litchfield, an Adelaide University lecturer, who is undertaking a Ph D there in Psychology. Her early research at Adelaide Zoo involved ape behaviour, and it led her to Africa, to international conferences and to meetings with Jane Goodall, the world's foremost authority on chimpanzee behaviour.

In 1998, Ms Litchfield wrote and published 'Treading Lightly,' a manual for responsible tourism with the African Great Apes. Produced by the Travellers' Medical and Vaccination Centre*, with a foreword by Jane Goodall, it became the international bible for Great Ape ecotourism, providing concise management solutions to benefit both animals and humans.

One year ago, at Bwindi in Uganda, 100 African rebels kidnapped tourists who had come to see the apes and killed them with machetes. The worldwide publicity that followed killed the ecotourism trade as well. In its wake, local economies crashed, and for the apes it may yet prove a catastrophe.

In the neighbouring Congo (formerly Zaire), at the once popular Kahuzi-Biega National Park, war and the consequent loss of tourism have brought a predictable harvest. Faced with starvation, farmers and poachers have reverted to forest clearance and hunting. In the past year alone, seven distinct groups of lowland gorillas have been killed, four at tourism sites, three at research centres; the animals made more vulnerable because of years of close contact with humans. Even in remoter areas of the Park, of 240 remaining gorillas, more than half have been killed for little gain, their meat selling for 25 cents a kilo; half the price of local beef.

Last month, exactly one year after the massacre of tourists, Ugandan President Museveni himself paid a visit to the apes at Bwindi to demonstrate that ecotourism was once more safe, but it will take a long time for confidence to return, and the apes may not survive it. Throughout the animals' range countries, those dedicated to their conservation are already trying to cope with massive problems including orphaned lowland gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees.

There are 30 of these orphaned chimpanzees in Uganda alone. There are at least 300 others across Africa, with more arriving daily. Many are too ill or traumatised to survive and, for those that do, there are few places to put them. Many apes still living in the "wild" have lost hands or feet in poachers' snares. Ape conservation is once more a matter of top priority.

This month, Ms Litchfield is returning to Uganda, where she has been invited to attend a 5-day workshop on Sanctuaries for Orphaned Chimpanzees. Researchers will use computer simulations to model ape populations, estimating the risks of their decline and extinction, and developing strategies for their conservation management.

For her, the answer lies in rebuilding responsible ecotourism there. 'The reaction that people have to the apes is like no other,' says Ms Litchfield. 'They describe it as powerful, transforming and spiritual. Those that come up to see the apes at close quarters return as different people, enriched by the experience.'

'I want people to have that experience, but not to add to the problems of the Great Apes,' she says. ' Responsible tourism is not exploitation but sharing,' says Carla. 'It must be ecologically sustainable, occur in natural areas, foster conservation, improve understanding and benefit local communities and environments.'

She sees some modest signs of hope. A 20-hectare forested island in Lake Victoria now serves as a sanctuary for about 30 chimpanzees. It performs a limited role in community education and ecotourism, raising awareness of the plight of the great apes in Ugandans and international visitors alike, but the animals relocated to this island will always need human intervention to ensure their survival.

For the moment, Ms Litchfield's Ph.D. is on hold. Her luggage is full of copies of her book, for so few Australians now visit the apes that there is no-one to sell them to. They will be sold in Africa, each one raising funds for the now urgent cause of conserving the Great Apes in Uganda.

  • The travellers' Medical and Vaccination centre http://www.tmvc.com.au includes information on buying Treading Lightly.


Contact Details

Dr Carla Litchfield
Email: aclitch@camtech.net.au
The University of Adelaide
Mobile: 0419 817 464

Mr David Ellis
Email: david.ellis@adelaide.edu.au
Website: https://www.adelaide.edu.au/newsroom/
Deputy Director, Media and Corporate Relations
External Relations
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 5414
Mobile: +61 (0)421 612 762