Groups Pool Resources To Shield Endangered DRC Gorillas

September 23, 2014

As this report went to press, Emmanuel de Mérode, chief warden of the 3,000-square-mile Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, had just returned to his post, having survived multiple gunshots in an ambush on April 15, 2014.

He had been driving to the park—home to one-third of the world’s estimated 880 mountain gorillas1 and a tiny population of Grauer’s gorillas —which he has worked tirelessly to protect from armed militia and illegal activities.

“In eastern DRC, conservation is sometimes dangerous work and security is not always good,” says Sivha Mbake, manager of field operations for Fauna & Flora International (FFI), who for 19 years has worked to encourage local communities to support conservation and to defend the country’s national parks from poachers and forest clearance amid decades of civil unrest.

“There are all these interferences by armed groups looking for food and engaging in illegal activities such as the search for mineral ores. In their search they also get into poaching and the business of selling meat,” says Mbake.

In 2013, a multi-partner conservation coalition,2 led by the Jane Goodall Institute, began to see the earliest fruits of its action plan to coordinate the conservation of the endangered Grauer’s gorilla and its close relative, the eastern chimpanzee, in eastern DRC.

The coalition estimates that the Grauer’s gorilla is now in a critical situation and could number as few as 2,000 individuals, down from an estimated 17,000 in the mid-1990s, surviving in 13 fragmented subpopulations scattered across a region that includes two major protected areas, Kahuzi Biega and Maiko National Parks.

The coalition warns that chimpanzees are also extremely threatened by the same factors as gorillas in and outside of DRC’s national parks—primarily illegal hunting. The second most significant threat is clearance of ape habitat for small-scale agriculture and illegal artisanal mining. All of these threats are fueled in part by the ongoing conflict and lack of law enforcement.

“Communities are poor, and when people kill wildlife, it’s usually for survival,” says Mbake. “The war has gone on for so long, and if you’re starving, you can’t think about 10 years down the line.”

Researchers from FFI and the Wildlife Conservation Society surveyed several regions. In October 2013, they confirmed the presence of three Grauer’s families in Regomuki, an area where they had not been spotted before, 22 miles south of Maiko. The families—consisting of about 4, 7, and 10 individuals (based on 25 nests), each including a silverback adult male—represent a ray of hope for the community and the ecosystem in an area where the gorilla population has been decimated.

The standardized methods and shared expertise and costs of the coalition’s approach represent a leap forward from the organizations’ independently conducted small-scale and less coordinated work in the past. In addition, apprehension of poachers by special security forces—and by local residents themselves—have made it more difficult to smuggle a baby gorilla or bushmeat.

In 2014, an FFI team, including 44 local staff, found 30 Grauer’s nests in DRC’s extremely remote Usala region, indicating that the local Grauer’s population numbers about 185 to 300.

“Once we find viable populations, like those in Usala appear to be, the challenge is to create stability in the population and work to ensure that future conditions allow the population to thrive. That’s one of the goals of our multi-partner coalition,” says Dario Merlo of the Jane Goodall Institute.

The coalition hopes eventually to engage the Usala community and others in alternative livelihood projects, such as shade cocoa growing and mining projects that do not disturb gorilla habitat, and through education—particularly of village chiefs who hold strong authority in the region.

John Shabani, also of the Jane Goodall Institute, adds: “With information now available, people know that ape populations are not a threat. Chimpanzees have even followed people home from the markets, and no one touches them. All of this tells us there has been a great change in attitude.”

1 According to the International Gorilla Conservation Program, there are 480 mountain gorillas in the Virunga Massif (2010) and 400 in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (2011).
2 Members of the coalition in 2013 are: FFI, Jane Goodall Institute, Wildlife Conservation Society, Centre de Rehabilitation des Primates de Lwiro, and Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.