VIRUNGA HEARTLAND March 2, 2011 -- The African Wildlife Foundation sadly mourns the passing of another longtime AWF friend and partner, Jean Pierre von der Becke. A Belgian conservationist, von der Becke was the first Director of the AWF-headed Mountain Gorilla Project, an outgrowth of Dian Fossey's groundbreaking mountain gorilla research and the predecessor of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP).
A coalition of AWF, Fauna and Flora International, and the World Wide Fund for Nature, IGCP is the coalition by which AWF today conducts its mountain gorilla conservation work across the gorilla's range in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Under von der Becke's leadership in the early and mid-1980s, the Mountain Gorilla Project trained a vigilant anti-poaching force which regularly patrolled Volcanoes National Park and created the framework for the internationally recognized gorilla tourism program which exists in Rwanda today --accomplishments that set the stage for a slow but encouraging rebound in the population of this highly endangered great ape. According to a census conducted in March-April 2010, the gorilla population living in the Virunga massif (which includes Parc National des Virunga in DRC, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda) had increased to 480 individuals, up from an estimated 250 individuals when von der Becke originally took up his post.
" Jean-Pierre's efforts in Rwanda in the 1980's were truly cutting-edge - working with Rwandan Park authorities to train park guards to actively protect gorillas and establishing a conservation model that has been duplicated numerous times since to save critically endangered species" says Craig Sholley, who succeeded von der Becke as head of the Mountain Gorilla Project and today serves as AWF's Vice President of Philanthropy and Marketing.
Thanks to the success of von der Becke and others' early efforts, AWF in 1990 was able to officially transfer stewardship of the Mountain Gorilla Project to the Rwandan government. Today, in support of multinational efforts to conserve mountain gorillas and their habitat for the benefit of local people, AWF and its partners pursue a regional strategy across the mountain gorilla's entire range in the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda. Although mountain gorilla conservation efforts have been enormously successful, the population at just 786 individuals continues to hover on the brink of extinction. Periodic outbreaks of civil unrest, bush meat hunting, and habitat destruction also threaten to undo years of gains.
"The best way to honor Jean Pierre's memory is to support AWF's on-going gorilla conservation efforts. Mountain gorillas numbers are slowly growing, but there will never be room for complacency if we aspire to ensure the survival of the Virungas gentle giants," says Sholley.
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