Gorilla Tourism Goes Online

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Mountain-gorilla tracking in Uganda is hard work -- up steep slopes, through fascinating but dense terrain. It's not for the faint-hearted, but now an online project set to launch Saturday is helping to make gorilla spotting, a major source of tourism income, more accessible than ever.

Gorilla tracking requires a good level of fitness and patience. It's not cut out for tourists who want instant, easy viewing from the comfort of an air-conditioned jeep. For those with determination the reward sometimes is to be in the presence of one of the world's gentlest, rarest and most reclusive gentle giants.

Technology, however, is set to make gorilla tracking easy and cheap for those who cannot afford a trip to Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, in the southwest of the country near the Rwanda and Democratic Republic of the Congo borders.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has introduced an online gorilla program aimed at addressing the global demand for conservation tourism. The project, due for launch Saturday, is also aimed at bringing attention to the plight of mountain gorillas that have suffered at the hands of man over the years.

Strategically placed video cameras in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park will stream video footage of the gorillas to audiences worldwide via the Web. Users will have to donate a minimum of US$1 to to track the movements of individual gorillas online.

"Through the friendagorilla Web site, gorilla lovers will have a chance to befriend any individual gorilla from the seven habituated gorilla families in the Bwindi National Park at one dollar," Serapio Rukundo, the junior minister for tourism, said.

Moses Mapesa, the UWA executive director, said the Web site's menu will include sections like geo-track, which will allow users to track gorillas using GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) coordinates.

"The platform will also allow users on social-networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace to 'befriend a gorilla,'" Mapesa said.

Game rangers will track the gorillas using normal methods and will register the locations of the gorilla families using GPRS. Social interactions within the groups will also be recorded, allowing subscribers to keep up-to-date with the whereabouts and activities of gorillas they have befriended.

Only gorillas accustomed to human contact will be included in the project.

Gorilla tourism is big business. Last year it raised $225 million for Uganda, providing 37 percent of the country's national annual earnings from tourism, and more than half of UWA's internally generated revenue.

UWA officials reckon the online tracking initiative will raise an additional $700,000 a year.

Tracking gorillas physically costs upwards of $500 per person, and visitors are strictly limited to small groups in order to minimize contact between gorillas and humans.

Permits for such journeys are often fully booked months in advance, and this has always caused friction between tour operators and the UWA. The online initiative, however, allows "tourists" to follow gorillas from the comfort of their home or office.

There are an estimated 720 mountain gorillas left worldwide, over half of which live in Uganda. According to The World Conservation Union, they are one of the three species of gorilla in danger of extinction.

This new online initiative has been designed to coincide with the United Nations declaration of 2009 as the year of the gorilla.

(see also "The 20 Wildest Webcams.")

This story, "Gorilla Tourism Goes Online" was originally published by computerworld.co.ug.

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