Africa's Mountain Gorillas Rebound, Says New Census

John Pickrell in England
for National Geographic News
January 27, 2004

On the National Geographic Channel tonight, go with National Geographic On Assignment to see Africa's fabled mountain gorillas (see sidebar for more information).

Made famous by the work of Dian Fossey and the 1988 movie Gorillas in the Mist, mountain gorillas were decimated by civil unrest, poaching, and habitat destruction during the 1960s and '70s. Now, despite the effect of war and genocide, the first census since 1989 reveals that the population of those apes in the Virunga mountains has grown by 17 percent.

Virunga's montane forests, and the national parks that protect them, straddle the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and are home to more than half of all mountain gorillas. Starting in 1990, civil war in Rwanda, and later the DRC, rendered the situation too dangerous for a full survey.

"There are not many great success stories in conservation today … this is tremendously gratifying," said Amy Vedder, former Virunga gorilla researcher and vice president of the Living Landscapes Program at the New York City-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). "It's outstanding that these countries have been able to provide protection on an interim basis during terrible times, and these numbers are a testament to their commitment."

In contrast, the results of another recent great ape survey announced earlier this month, showed that Asia's orangutan populations may have declined by as much as 50 percent in the last 15 years.

Newfound Stability

Taking advantage of newfound stability in the region—peace came to the DRC in 2003—and completed late last year, the census documented 380 mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) up 56 from the 324 tallied in 1989. A 2002 census of the only other known population of mountain gorillas, in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, found 320 individuals, giving a total of 700.

Carried out by the national park authorities of all three nations with technical assistance and financial support from international conservation organizations, the census' results were announced last week by the WCS, WWF, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and other groups.

The mountain gorilla was discovered by Western explorers around a century ago. It has longer fur and is more likely to be found nesting on the ground than the more numerous lowland sub-species. The first comprehensive survey of Virunga's gorillas estimated 450 individuals in the 1950s, but that population had plummeted to 254 individuals by 1981.

Since then, due to dedicated anti-poaching efforts by the national park authorities and international conservation organizations—and a unique gorilla-based ecotourism scheme—the situation has turned around.

Though Virunga's population appears small, 450 may be something like the natural density, said Vedder. The total protected area of the Virunga mountains is around 780 square kilometers, and dense agricultural land now borders it on all sides.

"Economic Asset"

Continued on Next Page >>


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