There is hope for the Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) claims the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (the IUCN red list). The species status has gone from “critically endangered” to “endangered” all thanks to the collaborative conservation efforts across country boundaries and the positive engagement from communities living around the Mountain Gorilla habitat. The population has increased from 620 individuals in 1989 to around 1,004 individuals today.
“In the context of crashing populations of wildlife around the world, this is a remarkable conservation success… and it’s happened in recently war-torn and still very poor countries… it is a beacon of hope,” said Tara Stoinski, president and chief scientist of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and also a member of the IUCN’s primate specialist group.
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is an Atlanta-based non-profit organization named after the primate researcher whose work helped draw international attention to mountain gorillas. Her memoir became the basis for the 1988 Sigourney Weaver film “Gorillas in the Mist”. Bossy died in 1985 but while she was alive she had projected that the primates may be extinct by 2000.
“We have made progress in terms of their protection, in terms of allowing an environment where mountain gorillas can continue to thrive and grow,” said Anna Behm Masozera, director of the International Gorilla Conservation Program, based in Kigali, Rwanda. “But it’s important to note that mountain gorillas’ numbers could still slip back very quickly. We still have just two fragile and small populations,” split between two national park areas.
About the Mountain Gorilla
The Mountain Gorilla is one of two subspecies of the Eastern Gorilla (Gorilla beringei) which became known to science on 17 October 1902. They reside in montane forests at high altitudes (2,500-4,000), as well as bamboo forests, along a range of dormant (extinct) volcanoes in East Africa. Their habitat falls inside national parks (protected areas covering approximately 792 km2) spanning parts of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The gorillas live in groups that normally consist of a single dominant silverback (named such because of the patches of grey hair on their back) male, three adult females, and 4-5 offspring. Group territories tend to overlap, therefore a silverback generally defends his group rather than his territory.
Why They Face Population Problems
The mountain gorilla has endured uncontrolled hunting (poaching for bushmeat), war (recurring civil unrest), disease (primarily human introduced ranging from respiratory problems to Ebola), destruction of its forest habitat (for farming), and capture for the illegal pet trade. All of these factors have led to their dramatic decline in numbers.
The biggest threat of all is the commercial trade in bushmeat. The consumption of ape meat is considered to be prestigious amongst the wealthy elite. This creates a demand for it in the high-end meat supply of urban centers. Poachers either sell it on the spot fresh or smoke it for later sale in town. Because gorillas are so large they are preferred by hunters due to the weight of saleable meat.
Unfortunately, gorillas have low reproductive rates so even low levels of hunting can cause a population decline, which could take many generations to reverse. Even the traps and snares intended for other forest animals such as antelopes frequently maimed or kill apes. Therefore, any hunting in their habitat is a massive threat.
The bushmeat trade is strongly linked to the threat brought upon through habitat loss. Forests are rapidly being destroyed by commercial logging interests, as well as for subsistence agriculture and road building activities. As previously inaccessible forests are opened up by timber companies, commercial hunters gain easy access to areas where gorilla roam. Regarding farming, their habitat is bordered by land intensively cultivated for agriculture by a growing human population.
Concerning illness, mountain gorillas are becoming increasingly exposed to a variety of human ailments as more people move into their habitat, and more tourists come to see them. Outbreaks of Ebola hemorrhagic fever have caused large-scale die-offs since the early 1900s.
A few more threats include the continued civil unrest and the presence of armed militias that make survey and conservation work difficult in the DRC’s protected areas (which are now in rebel-held territory), apes being sought after as pets or trophies, and their body parts being used in medicine or as magical charms.
What Is Being Done To Help?
The enforcement of national park boundaries (where hunting, logging and paved roads are illegal) has increased within all three governments.
Tourism helps a great deal financially. Visitors pay up to $1,500 an hour to watch gorillas. This money goes to help pay for the enforcing park rangers. “Primate ecotourism, done right, can be a really significant force for funding conservation,” said Russ Mittermeier, chief conservation officer at Global Wildlife Conservation. “It gives local governments and communities a tangible economic incentive to protect these habitats and species.”
Healthcare is also a target. Veterinary staff has been trained in each of the countries where the mountain gorillas live by a nongovernmental group called Gorilla Doctors. When gorillas are found struggling with traps (snares), the vets are called in to clean their wounds. Kirsten Gilardi, U.S. director for the organization, calls it “extreme conservation.”
“Whilst it is fantastic news that Mountain Gorillas are increasing in number, this subspecies is still Endangered and therefore conservation action must continue,” says Dr Liz Williamson of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group. “Coordinated efforts through a regional action plan and fully implementing IUCN Best Practice guidelines for great ape tourism and disease prevention, which recommend limiting numbers of tourists and preventing any close contact with humans, are critical to ensuring a future for the Mountain Gorilla.”
How Can You Help?
Visit the gorillas! Money earned through gorilla tourism contributes significantly to the conservation of the species – providing funds for conservation projects and creating jobs and bringing other benefits to local communities living near gorillas.
Donate to WWF to help support their great ape conservation work.
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