Africa's Mountain Gorillas Rebound, Says New Census

John Pickrell in England
for National Geographic News
January 27, 2004
On the href=""
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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"

One reason why gorilla populations were not decimated during the conflicts of the last decade may be that they had recognized financial value.

Amazingly in Rwanda, the warring factions declared they would not harm the gorillas. "Both sides recognized that, in part, the world knew of Rwanda because of the gorillas," said Vedder, "and also that through tourism they were a great economic asset to the country." Tourism was the third ranked source of Rwanda's foreign income prior to 1990. Vedder was a co-founder of the 1979 Mountain Gorilla Project which combined tourism with a more usual anti-poaching initiative.

Mountain gorilla tourism "brings in considerable revenue to the countries and local communities," agreed Annette Lanjouw, conservation worker and technical advisor to the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), based in Nairobi, Kenya. "This has had a very positive impact on attitudes … towards the park and the wildlife, and especially the mountain gorillas." The IGCP, successor to the Mountain Gorilla Project, coordinates conservation activities across all three parks and runs a ranger-based monitoring system.

Tourists are each charged around U.S. $250 for close encounters with habituated gorilla groups. Revenue from that and other activities can bring $20 million to the region each year, said Lanjouw.

Virunga's gorillas didn't survive completely unscathed during Rwanda's bloody genocide and other conflicts, however. Between 18 and 23 gorillas were killed since 1989, said Vedder, although these were likely the repercussions of militias camping out in the forests, rather than poaching attempts.

"War has also had a devastating impact on the people … who manage and protect the parks," Lanjouw said. "Not only have many guards lost their lives, but insecurity, danger, and lack of adequate payment has had its toll on them and their families." Seventeen guards were killed in the gorilla section on the DRC side alone, she said.

Logistical Challenge

The census itself was an enormous exercise completed with military precision in September and October last year. Involving a total of around 100 participants from the national park authorities of all three countries and multiple international NGOs, the entire Virunga range was swept from east to west in two phases of three weeks.

Teams of paramilitary-trained park guards and conservation workers followed set paths across the parks, each no more than 700 meters apart, searching for gorilla trails. Then group sizes were estimated using tried-and-tested methods, by counting numbers of night nests and measuring dung. The night nests of each gorilla group were counted on three days consecutively to verify the figures.

Dung samples were also collected for ongoing health and genetic studies. In addition, the teams surveyed the numbers of other plants and animals including endangered golden monkeys, elephants, and forest buffalo.

Though organizations including the WCS provided finances and training, said Vedder, "this census in particular stands out because all field teams were headed up by nationals of the three countries." These nations have shown a "very significant commitment to protecting mountain gorillas," she said. "This should serve as a great inspiration to the rest of the world."

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