In contrast to the violence, Virunga has been considered a conservation success story: at the end of May, the World Wildlife Fund announced that a new survey coordinated by the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration found that the number of critically endangered mountain gorillas around the world exceeded 1,000 for the first time in years, setting a record, thanks in large part to Virunga.
As the number of gorillas rose, so did the number of tourists. Since 2014, the park has received 17,000 visitors, despite the fact that visiting the gorillas is not cheap: a one-day gorilla trek costs $400 per person.
Now, the closure creates an impact that spreads much farther than the confines of the park. Wil Smith runs the tour company Deeper Africa from his office in Boulder, Colo. After nearly two decades of operating tours to Africa, he was thrilled to be able to offer his first tours to Virunga this summer. He had three trips planned and booked for tourist groups over the summer months.
“Virunga is a park that has struggled and is threatened and yet is still doing a really heroic job of protecting the wildlife at the same time,” Mr. Smith said. “So I was excited to support that.” He notes that the American tourists who commit to a trip to Virunga are a self-selecting, adventuresome bunch. “I tell them, look, there’s a travel warning, not just an advisory on that region, but for people who want to really experience the unknown and a real wilderness area, Virunga is a perfect fit.” He called the park’s closure “a huge disappointment.”
In 2013, the World Wildlife Fund released a report on the economic impact of Virunga National Park on the local economy. Allard Blom, managing director for the Congo Basin Program of the World Wildlife Fund notes that the tourism revenue that Virunga brings to the local area is “one of the reasons that in general people do not poach gorillas.” Now, he is concerned that Virunga’s closure could impact the gorillas in the long-term. With its closure, “the park is losing a large amount of revenue and so will have to reduce operations, meaning less protection for the gorillas.”
Shannon Sims was a 2018 African Great Lakes Reporting Fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation.