The downside of ecotourism

Contact with tourists and even researchers is exposing great apes in conservation areas in Africa to human pathogens. Mountain gorillas in a protected park in Uganda were found to share the same bacteria with the people living in the surrounding area, tourist guides and the scientists who studied them.

“Many of these apes haven’t had any contact with humans before. Because we have the same physiology, it’s likely that they get human diseases”, says veterinarian Innocent Rwego, from Makerere University , in Kampala, Uganda. His conclusions were presented yesterday in the International EcoHealth Forum, held in Merida from 1-5 December.

The study was carried in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park area, in southeastern Uganda. Rwego compared the Escherichia coli bacteria found in fecal samples of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei)  with those identified in humans.

He showed that genetic similarity was higher between the bacteria found in humans and in gorillas exposed to the daily contact with tourists. The similarity was smaller in animals that only had contact with researchers and even smaller in those who hadn’t had any contact with humans at all.

The study found also that the bacteria found in gorillas that had contact with tourists had the higher resistance to the antibiotics most commonly used in Uganda.

Rwego believes that restricting ecotourism in the region wouldn’t be a solution for this problem. “Tourism is a source of income for local communities living around these conservation areas”, he explains. “If we limit it, it will have a bigger impact on the population.”

“If we follow the he health and vaccination rules, we are likely to reduce any problem of transmission”, Rwego says. “Besides, there should be policies by government to reduce migration of people from other rural areas to the areas where ecotourism is flourishing.”

Read here a more complete version of this story (in Portuguese).