In 1979, AWF member Frank Rus, of Naperville, Ill., decided to make a trip that travel agents described as impossible, traveling the Congo River 1,100 miles from Kinshasa to the end of navigation, Kisingani. Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) was broken down (in the words of one government official), accommodations were scarce, transportation was unreliable and taking 16mm camera equipment to film mountain gorillas into a country suspicious of all unfamiliar activities would be extremely difficult. Nevertheless, Frank went.
Shrouded in mist and hanging moss, the mountain forests of the Virunga volcanoes are home to the magnificent mountain gorillas. The chain of eight volcanoes runs along the western branch of the Great Rift Valley, forming part of the border between Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. These spectacular mountains and the nearby Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda are the last refuge of the mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei), the world's most endangered primate. Only about 620 of these fabled creatures remain.
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.
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Annette Lanjouw knows all about the challenges that conservationists face in areas of armed conflict. Lanjouw directs the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP), which monitors mountain gorillas in the Virunga mountains on the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Much of that region has been buffeted in recent years by civil wars and refugee movements that have intensified the threat to the gorillas, and IGCP has taken steps to coordinate gorilla protection throughout the area.