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Please refresh the page and retry. We stood beneath them as fruits the size of golf balls rained down from the forest canopy where the troop of mountain gorillas was feeding. I looked on, mesmerised, as a month-old baby gorilla was breastfed right in front of me — the kind of encounter that brings tourists flocking to this south-west corner of the country, close to the border with Rwanda.
In the early Nineties, though, their fortunes changed. Bwindi was designated a national park, with the aim of protecting mainly endangered gorillas and elephants, and the Batwa — also referred to as pygmies — were brutally forced out.
In the case of the Batwa, it is widely acknowledged the tribe was having little or no impact on the species the park was designed to protect. However, locals from nearby towns and villages had begun to hunt small game, and the Uganda Wildlife Authority decided on a zero-tolerance policy of allowing no human presence in the park, apart from tourism. The eviction was hardly peaceful. When the fences went up, there were reports of Batwa people being threatened with guns and even killed.
Entire families were made homeless overnight — all so that, in the future, tourists like me could come and see the gorillas in their natural habitat, bringing much needed revenue to a poor region. Has wildlife conservation gone a step too far at the expense of local communities?
What local people need is food, timber, housing, hospitals and other infrastructure — but where land is given over to national parks and protected areas, agriculture, forestry and industry are curtailed. Revenue from wildlife tourism is important, but it alone cannot lever entire populations out of poverty — and there are negative human impacts to consider, too.