Latest Mountain Gorilla Census Puts Population at Over 1,000

Josh Wright

01 Jun 2018

A welcome conservation success story for this critically endangered species

Yesterday, researchers working in the Virunga Massif – an area split between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – announced the results of their recently completed mountain gorilla census, the ninth undertaken since the early 1970s. Back then, mountain gorillas were “on the very precipice of extinction”, says Alison Mollon, Director of Operations for Africa at Fauna & Flora International. At its lowest point, in 1981, the Virunga population numbered just 242 individuals. But this has now increased to a remarkable 604, which – combined with the more than 400 mountain gorillas that were estimated to survive in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park at the time of its last census, which took place in 2011 – takes the species population into four figures for the first time since reliable records began.

Representatives from all three mountain gorilla range states took part in the census, which concluded in June 2016. Surveying took place within the three national parks that comprise the Virunga Massif: Volcanoes in Rwanda, Mgahinga in Uganda, and Virunga in the DRC. The last two years have been given over to genetic analysis, to ensure the most accurate results. Emmanuel Munyembabazi, a tracker working with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund who contributed to the census, described it as “a tough job – physically demanding, with 12 hours per day walking through the forest, crossing big ravines and climbing mountains”. Despite the strenuous work, Munyembabazi praised the “collaborative effort” that took place between team members from different nations, and stressed how important the census is to the conservation of the mountain gorilla.

As well as tracking the gorillas, those involved with the census also collected faecal samples for DNA analysis. Team members even brought along handheld electronic devices for GPS and data entry; this is the first time such devices have been utilised on a mountain gorilla census. The growth of the Virunga population has been attributed to a number of factors, including the introduction of park guards, improved veterinary care, and community support projects. Regulated tourism also contributes hugely to funding gorilla conservation efforts. In the DRC’s Virunga National Park, for example, tourist numbers have risen from virtually zero in 2014 to 10,000 last year, generating a quarter of the park’s annual running costs (which top $10 million).

The news comes as a shining light in our daily struggle to protect the world’s endangered species, particularly in a region that has been so plagued by warfare and instability over recent decades. Nowhere is the battle to save the world’s mountain gorillas more fierce than Virunga, which borders both Rwanda and Uganda. The story of Virunga is one of both tragedy and heroism: the park’s staff, including 800 rangers, intelligence operatives, a rapid-reaction force and Director Emmanuel de Merode – a Belgian prince who survived an assassination attempt in the park in 2014 – put their lives on the line every day to protect Virunga’s wildlife, facing off against as many as 12 different armed rebel and militia groups that operate within the park’s borders. Poachers seeking ivory and bushmeat must also be contended with, as well as those entering the park illegally to fish, fell trees for the highly lucrative charcoal industry, and steal animals (including gorillas) for the illegal wildlife trade.

Over the last 20 years, more than 170 rangers have lost their lives defending the natural treasures of Virunga. In April of this year, the deadliest attack in the history of the park took place when five rangers and a staff driver were killed in an ambush in the park’s Central Sector. All those who died were aged between 22 and 30. Most recently, Rachel Masika Baraka – one of the park’s 26 female rangers – lost her life protecting two British tourists, who were kidnapped along with their driver on May 11th. All three were thankfully released without harm just two days later. Following the incident, de Merode praised Baraka as “highly committed, showing true bravery in her work”. These words can be attributed to every single member of Virunga’s staff, whose undaunted courage, dedication and belief in the sanctity of the natural world are an endless source of inspiration.

Virunga National Park is home to a vast array of plant and animal species, being one of the most biodiverse protected areas in all of Africa. Inscribing it as a World Heritage Site in 1979, UNESCO lauded Virunga’s ‘outstanding diversity of habitats’, which include swamps, steppes, snowfields, glaciers, lava plains, savannahs, lakes, rivers and forests. Iconic African wildlife like lions, hippos, giraffes, elephants, chimpanzees and buffalo live here, as do some 700 species of bird, close to 200 reptile and amphibian species and even the rare okapi.

But it is without doubt the mountain gorilla that Virunga cherishes the most, and for good reason. Despite the increase in their population, the mountain gorilla remains critically endangered, due not only to the aforementioned threats that rangers tackle but also climate change, habitat destruction and human-borne disease. We share more DNA with gorillas than we do with almost any other species (barring chimpanzees and bonobos) and this intimate relation is immediately apparent when coming face to face with one in its natural habitat. After meeting mountain gorillas for his 1979 series Life on Earth, Sir David Attenborough remarked: “There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know – they are so like us.”

For those wishing to venture into the forests of Central Africa and spend time with habituated mountain gorilla groups, we offer a number of different safari itineraries. Some take place in Rwanda, some in Uganda and some in the DRC, as well as a handful that take in more than one destination. For more information, you can view our mountain gorilla wildlife page, download our gorilla guide, and read through our guide to short gorilla tracking safaris.

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