Census finds increase in critically endangered mountain gorilla population

Posted on 07 December 2010
Habituated silverback mountain gorilla
A census of the world’s largest mountain gorilla population has counted 480 animals, an increase of 100 - more than a quarter - since the last count in 2003. 

The gorillas surveyed live in Central Africa’s Virunga Massif region, a volcanic mountain ecosystem consisting of three adjacent national parks spanning parts of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Uganda and Rwanda. 
A fourth park, southwestern Uganda’s Bwindi, is home to an additional 302 mountain gorillas, the only other remaining wild population, which together with four orphaned mountain gorillas in a sanctuary in the DRC brings the wild population to 786.
The Virunga census was conducted in March and April 2010 by local authorities with the support of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), a coalition of several conservation organizations, including WWF.
‘’This is vivid testimony to the commitment of the Rwanda, Uganda and DRC governments, in addition to their supporting partners including IGCP, to ensuring the sustained protection of this charismatic species,” said David Greer, African Great Ape Coordinator at WWF.  “The survey results provide us with an excellent demonstration of how strong law enforcement efforts put in place to safeguard flagship species can advance species conservation, benefit local communities, and provide important revenue to governments.”    
The current figure represents an annual growth rate of 3.7% in Virunga despite the illegal killing of no less than nine mountain gorillas in the area over the past seven years, according to IGCP.  Of the gorillas surveyed, 352 have been habituated to human presence, 349 living in groups and three solitary silverback males.  Habituated mountain gorillas have been the basis of a sustainable eco-tourism programme since the late 1970s.
“Unfortunately, as we continue efforts to replicate the successful mountain gorilla eco-tourism model elsewhere in Central Africa, weak government support for wildlife protection, rampant corruption and an uninviting tourism culture make for a much more challenging environment,” said Greer.  “To date, no gorilla tourism programmes west of the Virungas have achieved fiscal success.”
“The mountain gorilla is the only one of the nine subspecies of African great apes experiencing a population increase.  While we celebrate this collective achievement, we must also increase efforts to safeguard the remaining eight subspecies of great apes,” said Greer.  “Elsewhere in African great ape range states, government support of wildlife law enforcement efforts is shockingly weak and great apes continue to be poached in an environment of pervasive, legal impunity.”
To conduct the Virunga census, over 1,000 kilometres were systematically walked by six mixed teams of seventy-two people from DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda. Teams covered the entire range and meticulously documented fresh signs of gorilla groups.  Mountain gorillas make a new nest each night.  Genetic analysis of fecal samples were collected and analyzed to identify and correct for any double-counting of individuals or groups, ensuring the most accurate estimate for the population.

''While the results of the survey are encouraging, many imminent threats continue to loom over great ape populations throughout Central Africa including commercial poaching to supply bushmeat to wealthy urbanites, habitat destruction through illegal logging and land conversion, and the spread of highly infectious diseases such as Ebola hemorrhagic fever," said Greer.  "Moreover, the recent decision by the DRC government to open the Virunga National Park, Africa’s first National Park, a UN World Heritage Site, and DRC’s only home to the mountain gorilla, to oil exploration, is extremely disappointing and reveals that there is much progress to be made in balancing the need to maintain critical biodiversity regions in the face of competing government interests.''

The Virunga Massif mountain gorilla census was conducted by the protected area authorities in three countries: L’Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, the Rwanda Development Board and the Uganda Wildlife Authority. The census was supported by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (a coalition of WWF, the African Wildlife Foundation, and Fauna & Flora International), the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund – International and the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. The census was funded by WWF, Fair Play Foundation, and the Netherlands Directorate General for International Cooperation (DGIS) through the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration.
Habituated silverback mountain gorilla
© IGCP Enlarge
Teams from DRC, Rwanda and Uganda canvassed over 1,000 km of mountainous terrain counting gorilla nests.
© IGCP Enlarge