Q: As you know, mountain gorillas are an endangered species, and there are differing views about whether gorilla trekking by tourists is harmful or helpful to the species. What are your views on this issue?
A: It's a very important point. Mountain gorillas are indeed endangered, with only about 700 individuals surviving. Ecotourism anywhere holds considerable potential as an incentive for nations and for local communities to conserve wild landscapes and endangered species, but it has two primary pitfalls. First, it comes with inevitable environmental impacts, as it requires long-term presence of people and steady traffic of goods, services, and tourists into what are often ecologically sensitive areas. For mountain gorillas, which are very sensitive to contagious diseases spread by humans, this is particularly relevant. Another problem with ecotourism in many countries is that the money it generates sometimes doesn't trickle down sufficiently to benefit local communities and landowners, and the economic incentives for long-term conservation are then eroded locally. That said, tourist visits to mountain gorilla habitat are governed by many regulations designed to protect both gorillas and humans, and most tourists work hard to minimize their impacts. Overall, mountain gorilla ecotourism has provided sufficient economic incentive and national pride to make gorilla conservation a success story in equatorial Africa. Mountain gorillas are thought to be the only apes that have a growing (rather than dwindling) population.