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.
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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.
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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