Mountain Gorilla Numbers Show Big Increase

November 9, 2010

A census carried out in March and April 2010 in Central Africa’s Virunga Massif has shown a very encouraging increase in the population of mountain gorillas in the area in the past seven years. One of the planet’s most critically endangered species, Gorilla beringei beringei has increased its numbers by 26.3%, a growth rate of 3.7% per year.

A total of 480 mountain gorillas, in 36 groups along with 14 solitary silverback males live in the Virunga Massif, an area that includes three contiguous national parks – Parc National des Virunga in DRC, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda – spanning the Virunga Volcanoes on the border of three countries. Add to this figure the 302 mountain gorillas censused in 2006 in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and four orphaned mountain gorillas in a sanctuary in DRC, and the total known world population is now 786 individuals.

This increase would be good news in any circumstances, but that success on this scale has been achieved in a region that until 2003 was plagued by persistent conflict and movements of huge numbers of displaced people is little short of miraculous, and a testament to coordination and collaboration between conservation organizations on the ground.

Arcus supports transboundary mountain gorilla conservation efforts through grants to the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP), a coalition of the African Wildlife Foundation, Flora and Fauna International, and the Worldwide Fund for Nature. And the organization’s belief in the pivotal role of cooperation and coordination in effective conservation is reflected in grants that support efforts to conserve orangutans, gibbons and other apes elsewhere in the world too.

Annette Lanjouw, Senior Director of Arcus’ Great Ape Program, was director of the IGCP for 15 years until 2005, a period that saw the worst of the long running conflict in the region, which exacerbated the threats to mountain gorillas through hunting and loss of habitat.

“IGCP is a model of collaboration at three important levels. Not only is it a coalition of three conservation organizations working together to pool resources and skills for the benefit of the mountain gorillas and the people of the region, but it also builds collaboration between the three countries that share the mountain gorilla habitat, and strengthens relationships between the parks and the communities that live around them,” she explains.

The program continued uninterrupted during the long civil war in the region and the war and genocide that ravaged Rwanda in 1990-94, and which saw desperate people move into protected areas in search of food and safety, at considerable cost to the mountain gorillas. Annette is proud that the enormous achievement of these increased numbers has taken place against such a background, and that IGCP is led by African conservationists and development specialists from the three countries.

“It’s great that one of the most effective leadership programs in conservation is based on national expertise and African leadership, balancing pragmatism with deep knowledge and cultural sensitivity to build trust and collaboration in an extremely difficult region.”

But if conserving mountain gorillas demands collaboration, so too does counting them. Six teams totalling 72 people from DRC, Rwanda and Uganda systematically walked over 1,000 kilometres throughout the entire Virunga range during the census and meticulously documented fresh signs of mountain gorilla groups. Genetic analysis of faecal samples identified any double counting of individuals or groups, and corrected the numbers, ensuring the census produced the most accurate possible estimate for the population. This was helped by the fact that many individual gorillas are known and recognized by the rangers, who know these animals, their territories and families well from years of following them to observe and protect them in their natural habitat.

Yet not everything that’s glorious about this rise in mountain gorilla numbers can be captured by census or science: the fact is that these magnificent animals make humans feel a particular joy that is hard to explain.

“It’s difficult to put into words, and impossible to explain without somehow acknowledging that this feeling that almost everyone gets when they see the mountain gorillas must somehow be based on mutual recognition: on the fact that we are family, and both parties seem to know it somehow,” says Annette.

Whatever it is, it can only add to the sense that an increasing population is fantastic news.