- Foreign tourists pay $600-$700 per person for gorilla-tracking permits issued by the Uganda Wildlife Authority, which allow them to track and spend an hour with human-habituated mountain gorilla families.
- A recent audit at the UWA showed that some corrupt officials were issuing fake permits, diverting revenue away from the agency and impacting its conservation work, including project funding for communities at the frontline of gorilla conservation.
- In response, the agency suspended 14 staff members suspected of fraud, initiated a thorough probe, and rolled out a new system for issuing permits and collecting revenue.
- Communities living near the gorilla parks, many of whom have faced restrictions on traditional rights to the forests as a result of their protected status, say they’re aware of the scandal and that it’s only the latest in their litany of grievances against the UWA.
Tourists from around the world pay top dollar for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hobnob with gorilla families in Uganda’s montane forests. Part of the rationale for the steep prices is that gorilla permits fund efforts to keep these majestic apes safe. However, allegations of fraud in issuing of gorilla and chimpanzee permits at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) have exposed weaknesses in the country’s tourism-led conservation approach.
Some UWA employees were allegedly printing fake permits and issuing them to unsuspecting tourists. Corrupt officials pocketed the funds, according to UWA officials, so no records of the transactions existed in the agency’s financial records. However, tourists with the counterfeit documents were able to use them.
A tourism ‘cash cow’
Uganda offers paying visitors the rare privilege of interacting with some of our closest primate cousins in the wild. The experience is coveted because mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei), a subspecies of the eastern gorilla, nearly went extinct a few decades ago, their population shrinking to a few hundred individuals. Concerted conservation efforts helped their numbers rebound to more than 1,000 today.
These mountain-dwelling primates are found only in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, nestled in the country’s southwestern corner, on the border with the DRC, is home to half of the endangered great apes. Mgahinga National Park, which lies in the Virunga mountains that stretch across the border into the DRC and Rwanda hosts one additional family of mountain gorillas that are habituated to humans, including four silverbacks. The primates don’t do well in captivity, so the only way to see them is by trekking into their mist-laden highland homes.
The UWA, an agency under the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, issues gorilla-tracking permits. Foreigners pay between $600 and $700 per person for the permits, which allow them to track and spend an hour with human-habituated mountain gorilla families under the guidance of rangers and trackers.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, tourism contributed to 8% of Uganda’s GDP, much of it driven by gorilla tourism. The importance of this activity for Uganda can’t be overstated. Taddeo Rusoke, a conservation scientist at Nkumba University in Kampala, described gorilla tourism as “our cash cow.”
Tourists alerted the UWA to the fraud, complaining about mismatched serial numbers, dealings with intermediaries, and inexplicably low prices, Bashir Hangi, a spokesperson for the agency, told Mongabay in an emailed response.
The complaints resulted in an internal audit at the UWA that took place between June and August this year.
Sam Mwandha, executive director of the wildlife agency, told Mongabay the audit revealed that officials from the departments of reservations, finance and information technology were possibly involved, with the help of field staff. An ongoing investigation is also scrutinizing the role of tour operators.
The UWA didn’t put a number on the revenue losses, but some early estimates suggest it could be as much as 11.2 billion shillings (about $3 million).
Money paid for illegal permits essentially ends up in the pockets of corrupt officials, middlemen and possibly tour operators, and doesn’t enter UWA accounts. “The presence of fake gorilla permits not only undermines UWA’s credibility but also poses substantial financial implications. Firstly, these counterfeit permits result in revenue leakage for the agency,” Hangi said, and also “negatively affects UWA’s ability to invest in enhancing conservation efforts, wildlife protection, and community development projects.”
Uganda is a world-renowned haven for great apes like gorillas and chimpanzees, but protecting them comes at a cost to the communities who live alongside wildlife. When Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was created in 1991, the restrictions on people’s traditional rights to the forest led to frequent conflict with wildlife authorities. In later years, the UWA and international conservation organizations devised programs to allow limited access to forests and benefit-sharing from tourism to sell conservation to residents living around national parks.
Under a revenue-sharing agreement in place at Bwindi, $10 per gorilla permit sold and 20% of the $40 park entry fee is set aside for communities living around the park’s borders. Here, tourist numbers grew from 1,300 a year in 1993 to around 20,000 in 2016. “At the end of the day, when you get $10 from each permit, it is a lot of money,” Rusoke said.
“The revenue generated from legitimate gorilla tourism goes toward funding conservation programs and sustainable development initiatives, ensuring the long-term survival of these magnificent creatures and their ecosystems,” said Lilly Ajarova, CEO of the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB).
Funds siphoned off by corrupt actors rob people of their fair share. Insingoma Jackson, a resident of Rubuguri village, at the edge of Bwindi, told Mongabay by phone that they were aware of the scandal at UWA, which is only the latest of their grievances. “Those who work in national parks don’t treat our communities fairly,” he said. “There is nothing much that the community is getting [from] the park, compared to what the park is getting from the tourists.”
“The whole aim of revenue sharing in conservation projects is to improve the perception among communities and to garner support for protected area management,” Rusoke said.
Only villages that border the park are included in the revenue-sharing program in recognition of the disproportionate impacts on their lives. The money is used for community projects such as roads, schools, health centers and water points, and for buying livestock.
Jackson said $10 was a small fraction of the $600 international visitors pay to the UWA. Despite getting the lion’s share of this revenue, park officials are also enriching themselves by issuing fake permits, he said.
“In case of fake permits, that money to the communities would reduce. This means their livelihoods would be negatively affected,” said Brian Atuheire, executive director at the African Initiative on Food Security and Environment. “This poverty, in many cases, has promoted illegal activities in the park like poaching, which directly affects gorilla conservation.”
Hangi at the UWA appeared to agree with this assessment. “A portion of the agency’s revenue directly contributes to local communities living adjacent to national parks, thus ensuring their participation in conserving natural resources,” he said, adding that fake gorilla permits “not only jeopardize conservation efforts but also negatively affect the socio-economic development of communities.”
This is especially problematic given that even earmarked funds aren’t always enough, nor do they consistently reach the people they’re intended for.
Jackson said funds set aside for communities often “do not directly benefit those most affected” and that “locals have few employment opportunities in the tourism or conservation sectors.”
“The revenue can never be enough,” Rusoke said, “and there are leakages from corruption, delays, and problems in procurement. There is mismanagement and misappropriation of funds.”
When the UWA’s finances take a hit, it impacts the agency’s work across the board, not just at gorilla-hosting parks. “The resulting decline in wildlife conservation efforts, such as limited anti-poaching patrols or reduced habitat protection initiatives, weakens UWA’s ability to safeguard Uganda’s valuable wildlife resources,” Hangi said.
Experts were divided on how the scandal will impact the UWA’s ability to attract donor funding in the future. “Whenever an organization gets such a big scandal, international organizations that give them resources, both financial and human resources, become cautious, and this could affect their funding,” Atuheire said.
The scandal’s effect on tourism is also debated. “The fraudulent issuance of gorilla permits poses a significant threat to both the conservation efforts and the tourism industry in Uganda,” Ajarova said.
However, Rusoke said he didn’t expect the revelations to discourage international visitors or drive away UWA’s funders. The problems in the permitting system can be fixed, he said.
The UWA is attempting to clean up its house. The agency suspended 14 staff members suspected of being involved in the scam. A more comprehensive probe is underway that includes members from the UWA’s investigations unit and the Ugandan police. Findings from this inquiry are expected in November, according to the minister of state for tourism, wildlife and antiquities.
The Office of the Auditor General is conducting a wide-ranging audit of permits issued between July 2020 and September 2023 for four parks: Bwindi, Mgahinga and Kibale national parks, and Kyambura Gorge Reserve in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
The UWA is also rolling out a new booking and revenue collection system. The agency “implemented stricter protocols and leveraged technology to deter fraudsters,” Hangi said. Ajarova at the tourism board said this includes issuing “tamper-resistant permits with embedded security features and digital verification.”
Even as the UWA contends with corruption, it faces questions about visitors’ security at national parks under its care. On Oct. 17, a South African woman and a British man on their honeymoon and their Ugandan guide were killed in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Ugandan police blamed members of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a militia group operating out of the neighboring DRC, for the attack.