Long-Term Partnerships Catalyze Growth in Mountain Gorilla Population

August 19, 2013

The world’s mountain gorilla population grew by more than 10 percent from 2006 to 2011, reflecting successful cross-border partnerships and conservation efforts in Uganda, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

An official 2012 census showed that, unlike anywhere else in the world, the number of mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest rose from 302 in 2006 to 400 five years later, bringing the world population to 880.

“It’s not that the threats and dangers have diminished, it’s that conservation efforts are succeeding in abating those threats,” says Anna Behm Masozera, interim director of the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP), which in 2012 comprised the African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna &; Flora International, and the World Wildlife Fund.

“That’s the result of years of partnership and cooperation among the wildlife authorities of all three countries,” says Masozera.

Mountain gorillas, whose thick fur allows them to survive at high altitudes, are ranked “endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They and eastern lowland, or Grauer’s, gorillas are subspecies of the eastern gorilla.

Both mountain and eastern lowland gorillas live in groups ranging from a handful of individuals to several dozen members, each led by a dominant male whose sexual maturity is displayed in the silver fur on his back.

Conflict and a rapidly rising human population has put much of the region’s gorilla habitat under threat, with the center of instability located in Virunga National Park in eastern DRC, where hostilities continued throughout 2012.

In April, rebels in DRC’s North Kivu province, on the border with Rwanda, began a renewed insurgency against the government, causing a collapse in Virunga tourism and a revenue drop of $700,000 in the park’s annual budget.

An emergency grant to the Virunga Fund enabled vital park ranger activities to continue by funding supplies related to patrols, health care, and transport for rangers.

“We work closely with the regional park authorities, who’ve improved law enforcement and ways of securing mountain gorilla habitat,” says Masozera. “Communities neighboring the parks have become more direct beneficiaries of mountain gorilla conservation in recent years…that’s encouraged greater participation.”

For several decades, IGCP has collaborated with local communities on enterprise development, ranging from beekeeping and honey production to operating luxury tourist lodges. It has also helped ensure that revenue from gorilla tourism is shared with local residents to fund conservation-oriented livelihood projects.

Community cooperatives and associations bordering the parks now earn more than US$500,000 per year from businesses that have benefited from IGCP training in governance, product development, and marketing.

Moreover, the linkage of income-generating activities to conservation is changing attitudes toward mountain gorillas—a trend evident in the engagement of former poachers to help with anti-poaching patrols and practical conservation work.

In Rwanda, for example, some 3,000 members of the ex-poacher group Amizero now repair the stone “buffalo walls” that keep animals off smallholder farms and help to keep the park free of snares and rubbish that are a danger to gorillas.

Another element of the multi-faceted conservation approach in the region’s highlands combines close monitoring, community involvement, and active intervention, when needed, to protect gorilla health.

In 2012, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP), which has worked in the region for more than 25 years, performed 143 routine checks on mountain and eastern lowland gorillas.

MGVP vets fielded reports of 52 ill or injured animals located by trackers working for the wildlife authorities of all three range states. They were able to administer life-saving care to 13 gorillas within 24 hours of receiving these reports.

Among the conditions treated by MGVP were diseases such as respiratory viruses, which can arise through human-gorilla transmission—one of the major threats identified by IUCN as endangering the survival of the species.

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