Conservationists and park officials have managed to protect the Virunga population of highly endangered mountain gorillas despite protracted conflict in and around their habitat, the mountains where Congo-Kinshasa meets Rwanda and Uganda. The population of this group, one of two groups left in the world, has increased by at least 11 percent since the last full count in 1989.
The group grew from 320 to 355 individuals, based on monitoring data from the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), a joint initiative by the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), Fauna and Flora International and the World Wide Fund for Nature (International), and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGF-I).
IGCP monitors the entire range of the mountain gorillas (both populations). DFGF monitors the research groups of gorillas in Rwanda. Together, these data show that the population has been slowly increasing, despite the war and conflict in the region, and the enormous threats on the habitat. The Virunga population represents more than half the total world population of mountain gorillas. The only other population lives in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.
"This success proves that even in a region hammered by conflict and crises, there is hope," says Annette Lanjouw, Director of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme. "There is a future for both people and wildlife, when people work together despite political differences." R. Michael Wright, President of AWF, agrees. "The increase in the mountain gorilla's population is indeed a tremendous accomplishment, and African Wildlife Foundation is proud of our role in conservation in the Virunga Heartland," says Wright. "IGCP was the only conservation organization that continuously maintained operations during political and social unrest, and this commitment has certainly proved successful."
Civil unrest, armed conflict and genocide have plagued the Great Lakes region for the last 10 years. The Virunga volcanoes range, the habitat of one of the two populations of mountain gorillas has been in the centre of the fighting and the instability in the region. This forest, straddling the borders between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been repeatedly used by various armed groups, including the infamous Interahamwe, as a transit corridor and a rear base for their military activities.
Over the years, thousands of civilians have sought refuge in the Virungas, and many of them remained in the volcanic forest for long periods of time, relying on hunting for bush meat and small scale farming for their survival. About 15 gorillas are known to have been killed as a direct consequence of this war. Military and militia movements through the forest have certainly affected many of them, and have had a negative impact on the habitat as a whole.
A census of the Virunga population of mountain gorillas, conducted in 1989 by a number of national and international conservation organisations, showed the population to number 320 individuals. From the daily monitoring of the research and tourism gorilla groups, and the sightings of wild groups, it appears that the current population stands at a minimum of 355 known gorillas. This figure is most likely an underestimate, with more individuals to be counted, and it represents a significant increase from the 1989 census. An analysis, currently in preparation by IGCP, DFGF-I, the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC) and the Max Planck Institute will describe in more detail the population increase observed.
Conservationists stress that the increase can be directly traced to the sheer dedication of field staff operating on the ground. Park rangers and trackers, many of whom have been killed or wounded while on duty in Rwanda and DR Congo, have been patrolling the forest continuously throughout the years of civil unrest. This dedicated work has limited the damage to the habitat and the population of gorillas.
The park authorities of the three countries - the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), the Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN) and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) - and their governments, have never relinquished their pledge to protect this endangered and unique subspecies of gorilla. The regional collaboration and monitoring of the forest and gorillas is one of the central activities of these institutions.
The national parks authorities have benefited from the continued support of the above-mentioned international conservation organisations. These organisations have been working together, demonstrating the value of collaborative efforts.
The plight of the mountain gorilla is not over, however. The crisis in the Great Lakes region continues, and threats to the forests, the wildlife and people of this region are becoming increasingly acute. Continued commitment will have to be ensured in order to secure the long-term protection of these forests, and the gorillas. Widespread poverty and continued violence, as well as habitat encroachment, poaching, and lack of resources for conservation are still tangible threats.
Conservation groups estimate that there are approximately 650 mountain gorillas in the world, all of which are in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. They are divided into two populations. One population, in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of Uganda, numbers approximately 300 individuals. The second population, in the Virunga forest, straddling the borders of Rwanda, DRC and Uganda, numbers at least 350 individuals. The mountain gorilla is one of the rarest of the gorilla subspecies. Gorillas are one of human's closest relatives, living in stable family groups. Their primary threats are from humans, through poaching, habitat destruction, disease transmission and war/conflict.
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