Mountains of the apes

Saving charismatic species and their landscapes

Two great apes embrace in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. Joseph King, Flickr
18 June 2019

“Everybody calls me the ape guy,” laughs Johannes Refisch of UN Environment in Nairobi, Kenya. “Whatever I do, I will never get rid of that name.” It might not be everyone’s ideal moniker, but Refisch reasons that “at least people know what we’re doing. It would be much worse to be sitting there in a UN office with no one knowing what I’m up to!”

What he’s up to is leading the secretariat for the U.N.’s Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP),  which works to conserve the non-human great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans) through pro-poor conservation and sustainable development strategies. Through the secretariat, Refisch also plays a key role in the Vanishing Treasures program, which helps countries improve the adaptive capacity of mountain ecosystems – and protect flagship species that are key to their functioning – in the face of climate change.

A self-confessed ‘ape fanatic,’ Refisch is quick to acknowledge that the focus on these particular creatures is somewhat strategic. “We can’t afford a secretariat for every species,” he says. “So we take a group of charismatic species – great apes – that lots of people care about, and we promote new ideas that will benefit the entire habitat and all the other forms of biodiversity that exist there.”

Mountains of the apes
Volcanic ridges in Virunga National Park. Joseph King, Flickr

One focal species in the Living Treasure program is the mountain gorilla (Gorilla berengei berengei). There are just over a thousand of these apes left in the world. Their habitat spans just under 800 square kilometers, stretching across the higher-altitude reaches of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda and the Virunga massif, a string of forested volcanoes that straddles Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This habitat is under threat. The Virungas boast fertile volcanic soils, so human population pressure on the ecosystem is particularly high – up to 650 inhabitants per square kilometer. “It’s basically the population density of the Netherlands on a purely agricultural landscape,” says Refisch. “So there’s not much space left.”

The squeeze on space is impacting the landscape. When Refisch first visited the Virungas almost three decades ago, “there were swamps at the bottom of these mountains, and in the dry season, there was always fog, so the farmers had enough humidity to maintain their agriculture,” he describes.

Mountains of the apes
A mountain gorilla hangs in the trees. Joseph King, Flickr

“But with the increasing human population pressure, people drained the swamps [to make more cultivable space], and now we have longer dry spells and no fog in the morning,” he says. “So the landscape is drying out in the dry season.” Meanwhile, climate change is causing more extreme swings between the wet and dry seasons, which further exacerbates the water shortage.

This affects productivity, causes electricity issues because hydrodams operate at low water levels, and means many people struggle to source drinking water. “So hundreds, if not thousands, of people are going into the park in the dry season,” says Refisch. “It’s illegal, but of course the park rangers can’t stop someone who’s looking for water. And it causes disturbance to the gorillas.”

He says it’s crucial to train national park authorities to develop climate change adaptation strategies. “The world is changing dramatically,” he says. “National park authorities are good at dealing with things like poaching and habitat loss, but when you look at the management plans, there’s very little on climate change, and they’re not prepared.”

Refisch emphasizes that local communities are supportive of strategies to protect the gorillas, especially since many have already benefited from the tourism opportunities that the species provides. “They’re very proud of their gorillas,” he says. “That’s not the issue. But they’re really facing up to the impact of climate change. And the park managers are in between and confronted with a completely new challenge.”

Mountains of the apes
Young Rwandans wave hello in the country’s Virunga region. Youngrobv, Flickr

Providing people with reliable water supplies is one short-term option, he says, “but overall we need to look at it from a much more holistic point of view.” Developing alternative livelihoods, so that not everybody depends on agriculture, is one important step. It’s also necessary to look at the national and international factors that are contributing to the pressure on these areas, such as global demand for minerals and oil that are often found in great ape habitats.

That’s why Refisch, these days, is prepared to spend much of his time in a Nairobi office instead of in the field with his beloved apes. “I’ve spent years in the bush,” he says, “and I love going out. But it has also been frustrating – you can work in a national park, and then a decision gets made, and all of a sudden, you find an oil pipeline or whatever going through it, and there’s nothing you can do.”

Providing a political platform from which to approach governments and stakeholders – and advocate cross-sectoral land-use planning and ape-friendly solutions – is thus an important part of GRASP’s work. “We need to shoot high,” says Refisch. “It’s a global issue.”

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