Behavioral Responses of Gorillas to Habituation in the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, Central African Republic

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We monitored the impact of habituation for tourism through changes in gorillas' behavior during the habituation process at Bai Hokou (Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, Central African Republic) from August 1996 to December 1999. From August 1998 onwards we focused on one gorilla group: the Munye. During the habituation process, it became increasingly easier to locate and to remain with the gorillas. Their initial reactions of aggression, fear and vocalization upon contact were replaced increasingly by ignoring us. Curiosity appeared to be an intermediate stage in the process. The way in which contacts with the Munye ended became more subdued over time. Regular daily contact is important in promoting habituation. Likewise, contacting gorillas while they are in a tree or in dense forest provides positive results compared to open habitat. Contacts within 10 m and contacts without forewarning the gorillas of observer presence, e.g., via tongue clacking, should be avoided. As of December 1999, habituation had progressed well; habituation of western gorillas is feasible. However, the gorillas experience negative effects during the habituation process, showing, for example, an increase in daily path length, and reactions of aggression, fear and vocalization upon contact. Impacts diminish over time. Given these and other potentially negative effects, the decision to begin habituation should not be taken lightly.

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