Critically endangered mountain gorilla population grows despite threats to forest habitat

22 June 2018

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — The number of critically endangered mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) living in the rainforests of the Virunga Mountain range in East Africa is rising, according to a new census, released a few weeks ahead of World Rainforest Day.

According to the census, which was led by protected area authorities of the governments of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Uganda, gorilla populations grew to 604 from an estimated 480 in 2010. In 1981, there were only 242 mountain apes and the population was at an all-time low.”

Combined with the findings of a census conducted in 2011, which counted 400 mountain gorillas living in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, the numbers indicate the existence of 1,004 mountain gorillas worldwide. It is the only wild ape population whose numbers are increasing.

The most recent gorilla census took place in the volcanic Virunga Massif mountains, a vast area spanning the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda. It is one of the two remaining habitats of the mountain gorilla, a sub-species of the eastern gorilla. 

The census results represent “a huge success for conservation at a time when such success stories are increasingly rare,” said Tara Stoinski, president, chief executive and chief scientific officer of Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, in a statement.

According to the Fossey fund, a partner organization involved in the census, the increase in the mountain gorilla population is a result of the intensive daily protection provided by park authorities of the three countries and conservation organizations.

HABITAT PROTECTION

The Virunga habitat is one of the poorest areas of Africa, with recurring conflicts due to the presence of various armed militias and poachers out for ivory or bush meat. This makes protecting the gorillas a difficult job, as documented in the Oscar nominated documentary Virunga (2015) which follows rangers in the Virunga National Park in DRC’s highly unstable North Kivu province.

Established in 1925 to protect the mountain gorillas that roam the misty cloud forest habitat and hundreds of other rare species, Virunga is Africa’s oldest park. The gorillas benefit from their forest environment, subsisting primarily on shoots, leaves, stems of various plants, bark, roots, flowers and fruit.

In the 1980s and early 1990s the park attracted thousands of tourists, but its allure ended in the 1990s, as the region became unstable due to armed conflict.

In 2007, with relative peace restored, the park received new funding from international donors, which led to park management reform, and more rangers. By 2014, the park was open to tourists again. Since then it has received over 17,000 visitors, providing employment opportunities to local communities, and a source of funding to the park’s management, contributing about $2 million towards Virunga’s annual budget of about $9 million.

In a 2017 interview, Emmanuel De Merode, director of Virunga National Park, explained that tourism has been an important component of the conservation approach. People from all over the world visit the park to see the gorillas.

The park has also been investing in job creation in the communities surrounding the park through micro loans and hydroelectric power projects to boost the local economy.

THREATS CONTINUE

Although the number of mountain gorillas is on the rise, the population remains critically endangered and many threats persist. The gorilla population is highly vulnerable to the transmission of human-borne diseases that are potentially fatal for the apes. Poaching remains a substantial problem. The survey teams who performed the census said they discovered (and destroyed) more than 380 snares used by poachers to catch antelopes, but which may also kill gorillas.

Rangers patrol the park, trying to prevent illegal activities such as poaching and the harvesting of trees for charcoal production, but it is a dangerous job, because many of these activities are controlled by armed militias.

It has been described as a low-intensity war. De Merode said he was shot four times in the stomach and legs during an ambush in 2014. Over the past 20 years, more than 175 rangers did not survive similar clashes, according to the statement.

This year alone, eight rangers have been killed in confrontations with armed groups. The most recent tragedy occurred on May 11, when a female park ranger, 25-year-old Rachel Masika Baraka, was killed trying to protect two British tourists and a Congolese driver, after gunmen ambushed their vehicle. Soon after this attack, Virunga National Park management decided it could no longer guarantee the safety of its visitors, and closed the park to tourism until 2019.

The recent security incidents are a sign that tensions are on the rise. In part, the prospect of elections at the end of the year has reportedly intensified fighting over land and resources, such as mines. According to observers, tensions may subside again after the elections, but political stability in the country is highly uncertain.

There is also the ever-present threat of powerful actors opening up the park for resource extraction, as poignantly illustrated in a documentary about Virunga, which unveiled the dubious practices of a British oil company. That particular company has now given up the ambition to extract oil from Virunga, but there is a risk that other actors will attempt to access the rich resources in the area, even though such activities are illegal according to national and international law.

Find out more about restoration initiatives throughout Africa at the Global Landscapes Forum GLF Nairobi summit, August 29-30, 2018Click here