Tweeting Uganda Gorillas make Friends Online

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda (Reuters) - Lurking deep in the mist-glazed forests of east Africa, Uganda's mountain gorillas are preparing to 'tweet' for their survival.

With the launch on Saturday of the "Friend a Gorilla" campaign, human fans will soon be able to follow the everyday drama of one of the few remaining 720 mountain gorillas online, far from the red ants, mud and tropical rain of their habitats.

When the friendagorilla.org site goes live, users will be able to access videos, pictures and rangers' blogs through websites like Facebook and Twitter, said Moses Mapesa Wafula, head of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).

They will also be able to follow their new friends via satellite tracking.

"By paying one dollar to Friend a Gorilla, everybody contributes to the conservation of this species," Wafula said.

Not everybody can afford the $500 price tag for a real gorilla trek but the fiber-optic tentacles of globalization will make it possible for anyone to watch a mother grooming her children, juvenile males fighting for dominance or even feel the rush of being charged by a 500 pound (225 kg) silverback male.

Tourist receipts represent Uganda's second largest foreign exchange earner.

Organizers say the campaign is the first time social networking has been harnessed for conservation and hope it will generate $100,000 in the first three months and a further $350,000 within the first year.

Drafted in to help publicize the campaign, actor Jason Biggs, star of the American Pie comedies, said gazing into the eyes of a gorilla was like meeting an old friend.

"It was pretty surreal. I felt like when I made eye contact with the gorillas, it was like an out-of-body experience," Biggs told Reuters after a face to face encounter with one of the gorillas at Bwindi. "It was mind-blowing."

With around 370 mountain gorillas, Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park plays host to roughly half the global population, with the remainder scattered across volcanoes in nearby Rwanda and the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo. The gorilla's habitat is threatened by illegal logging for charcoal, timber and agriculture and are also poached for bush meat, UWA staff said.

Although the gorillas remain endangered, UWA has registered growth rates of 12 percent and watched the gorilla population double over the last 25 years, according to Wafula.

He said the money raised by the Friend and Gorilla campaign would contribute toward conservation efforts as well as help promote alternative livelihoods for people living in and around the park.

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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