Habituation of primates: What does it mean?
Visiting gorillas or chimpanzees in their natural environment is an exceptional trilling experience and has been promoted the last decades as a sustainable way for conservation. To do so the animals have to be prepared, the process is called habituation. The animals (Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Golden Monkeys and the Black and White Colobus Monkeys) get used to humans for research or tourism. They "tolerate" human presence and the interaction will be restricted especially with tourists.
Visitors have to respect certain rules and avoid any interaction with the animals. You are for example supposed to keep distance (7 m) and not to touch a gorilla even when a juvenile approaches you!
Why is this so important? One of the reasons is to limit the risk of decease transmission from humans to the animals. The daily visits of humans are putting them at risk. The number of visitors and the time spend with them is also restricted to reduce the stress of animals.
The Rangers will visit an assigned group for habituation every day. When they find the group, Rangers will try to spend some time with them. This can only be done gradually and the process can take up to 2 years before tourists will be allowed. Once a group is habituated to humans, they lose their fear for humans and are more vulnerable to poachers. Daily monitoring becomes necessary for their safety and health. It's an effective way against poaching: when snares are found in the park, the guards will remove them and if animals are found in the snares, or when they are sick, a veterinarian can help them.
This kind of Nature Tourism is only sustainable when strictly controlled, limited and well managed in the interest of the animals. Tourism may then certainly contribute to the survival of the animal populations but the impact of tourism is poorly understood. Habituated gorillas tend to spend more time near cultivated fields outside the forest, bringing them in to potential contact with humans, leading to crop damage, and potentially creating heightened disease transmission risk from human to gorilla. All these possibilities require research for effective conservation management in the future.
See here the Magic Safaris video about the Chimp Habituation Experience