What do mountain gorillas and snow leopards have in common?

Members of our team recently visited Uganda with partners from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Bhutan as part of UNEP’s Vanishing Treasures programme. Yes, Uganda, where some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas live. You may wonder what connects snow leopards to mountain gorillas.

Both these endangered species live in high-altitude habitats with interspersed human settlements. Both must coexist with people in a fragmented landscape exposed to a changing climate. Although they live far apart and on different continents, protecting snow leopards and mountain gorillas requires solving similar problems. Many threats affecting the survival of these two species have comparable roots and many of the solutions to conserve them involve community stewardship. These similarities are why these seemingly very different species, along with a third species – the Bengal tiger, are the main focus of UNEP’s Vanishing Treasures programme.

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Fortunately, the number of mountain gorillas is currently on the rise. Conservationists and community members believe the development of gorilla-friendly ecotourism is one important way to protect the species. Since the beginning of their ecotourism program, the population of mountain gorillas has doubled. Depending on the country, each tourist contributes between $300 and $1500 in permit fees to see these majestic creatures, which generates significant revenue. A substantial portion of the fees go to the local communities who have also set up several enterprises such as souvenir shops, restaurants, resorts and travel support to benefit from the influx of tourism.

The Kyrgyz team, represented by Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan and Ilbirs Foundation, jointly presented a detailed report about the work being done in the country under the Vanishing Treasures Project. From biodiversity surveys to climate risk assessment, valuation of ecosystem services, climate adaptation strategies, and nature-based solutions for economic development, the project is a holistic package piloting the on-ground implementation of Climate Adaptation.

Learning about local experiences working in difficult socio-economic situations amid political instability was enlightening for our team. Mountain gorillas occur in three countries in a region strife with armed conflict. Yet, mountain gorilla conservation efforts bring these countries together under the aegis of collaborative initiatives such as the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), a program similar to the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP), which Snow Leopard Trust supports. What impressed our team the most was their proactive approach towards adapting to the changing circumstances and uncertainties posed by climate change.

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Local communities, rangers, government officials and non-government organizations work together in and around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to conserve Mountain gorilla populations whose populations have significantly increased from less than 700 individuals in the 1990s to over 1,000 today.

Our goal is to continue this valuable exchange of ideas, best practices and experiences between teams working on snow leopard and mountain gorilla conservation. We are committed to supporting local communities who share their lands with snow leopards in multiple ways, including various livelihood-strengthening programs. This includes supporting their efforts in sustainable and holistic tourism in snow leopard landscapes. With diversified livelihood options that cushion local communities against climate-change-induced uncertainties, we hope to foster coexistence with snow leopards.

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The Vanishing Treasures Project is being implemented by the United Nations United Environment Program (UNEP) with funding support from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and in partnership with the International Snow Leopard Trust, Great Apes Survival Partnership, Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program, Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan, Ilbirs Foundation, Association of Nature Conservation Organisations of Tajikistan, Bhutan Tiger Center, Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration, International Gorilla Conservation Programme, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation.

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