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Rwandan mountain gorillas a rare conservation success

Rwandan gorillas a rare conservation success
Rwandan mountain gorillas a rare conservation success 00:32

Mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda is helping the country, its people and the animals themselves, reports Lesley Stahl on Sunday's 60 Minutes. Once dwindling in numbers, mountain gorillas are the only great ape whose numbers are now on the rise, attracting well-heeled tourists and boosting the local economy. Stahl went to the mountains of Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas and report on their economic impact for a story to be broadcast on 60 Minutes, Sunday, November 28 at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

When Dian Fossey first arrived in Rwanda in the late 1960s to study mountain gorillas in their native habitat, they were considered dangerous creatures, hunted by poachers who sold their body parts as trophies. Fossey's scientific research and her appearances in National Geographic helped people see gorillas as the gentle giants they actually are and sparked a surge in interest to see the animals up close. Primatologist Tara Stoinski heads the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, a non-profit science and conservation organization. She says that in the decades since Fossey's work was published, the mountain gorillas have become a critical economic engine for Rwanda.  

"One of, if not the top source, of foreign revenue, is tourism to see the gorillas. For the whole country," says Stoinski.   

The key to the gorillas' success is what Stoinski and the Rwandan government call "extreme conservation." Today, gorilla poaching in Rwanda has been eradicated. Instead, every gorilla family in the park is carefully monitored by researchers and trackers, 365 days a year.  

But perhaps the most surprising element of "extreme conservation" is the role played by tourists. Each day, visitors pay $1,500 per person to trek up the volcano to spend just one hour with the gorillas. Stahl and 60 Minutes cameras went on one of the tours, climbing high into the mountains and observing the apes in their habitat. The gorilla treks are operated by the Rwandan government, which shares 10% of the revenue with the communities that surround the national parks. The districts themselves choose how to spend the money — on schools, infrastructure and other essentials to improve their lives.   

In addition to the steep trekking fees, affluent tourists boost the local economy in other important ways. Jobs for porters and guides—including some who were former poachers—have flourished, as have jobs at the luxurious, high end hotels that have opened near the park.   

Mountain gorillas once numbered just 254 in the Virunga mountains, but today they are up to over 600, with another 400 in neighboring Uganda. They still face dangers, including getting trapped in snares set for smaller animals like antelopes. But overall, things are moving in the right direction, says Stoinski. "It is a success story, definitely, but we say it's a fragile success because there are so few of them left and there are still so many threats."  

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