Mountain gorillas increase, despite war

Posted: 22 January 2004

Author: By Jikkie Jonkman

The latest survey of mountain gorillas in Central Africa's Virunga Mountains indicates that the population has increased over the past 15 years, despite ethnic conflicts in the region, huge influxes of refugees, civil war, poverty, and volcanic eruptions.

Drs Annette Lanjouw and mountain gorillas. © WWF / Jikkie Jonkman
Drs Annette Lanjouw and mountain gorillas. © WWF / Jikkie Jonkman
Dr Annette Lanjouw and mountain gorillas.© WWF/Jikkie Jonkman

"Yes, there have been times when our [conservation] colleagues were in great danger. Some have had a gun held to their head, and some were even killed. Mountain gorilla habitat has been through very dangerous times. But for millions of people in this region it was much worse. Many lost their lives, were attacked or raped, or lost everything they owned."

Dr Annette Lanjouw is speaking from the foot of Sabyinyo, one of the dormant volcanoes in Rwanda that is home to mountain gorillas.

She has experienced first-hand the difficulties of being a conservationist in a war-torn area: since 1991 she's been working with the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), an initiative set up by the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), Fauna and Flora International (FFI), and WWF to conserve the endangered mountain gorillas and their forest habitats.

Young mountain gorilla (<em>Gorilla gorilla beringei</em>). © WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey
Young mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei). © WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey
Young mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei).© WWF-Canon/Martin Harvey

The work is certainly paying off. The livelihoods and incomes of the communities living around the forests are improving. And gorilla numbers are increasing too. A survey conducted by IGCP and other partners late last year - the first in 15 years - in the three adjoining parks in the Virunga Mountains recorded 380 individuals, up from 324 in 1989.

"If organizations such as IGCP and WWF had not joined in to help, the situation with the gorillas would be very much worse, of that I am certain," says Dr Lanjouw.

750,000 refugees

Sabyinyo is part of the Virunga Mountain Range, which runs along the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Uganda. The heavily forested slopes of the six dormant volcanoes are home to more than half the world's 700 mountain gorillas.

The volcanoes may mostly be quiet, but the region still smoulders and bubbles.

Some 750,000 refugees flooded into DRC following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, thousands travelling through the Virunga Mountains. The refugee camps set up around the border town of Goma lasted for two-and-a-half years and were the biggest the world has ever seen. They were also right on the edge of Virunga National Park, one of three adjoining parks that protect mountain gorilla habitat in these mountains.

Gorilla killed in conflict.© WWF-Canon/Michel Gunther
Gorilla killed in conflict.© WWF-Canon/Michel Gunther
Mountain gorillas were sometimes caught up in the human conflicts. This gorilla, Mrithi, was killed in Rwanda in 1992 by guerillas.© WWF-Canon/Michel Gunther

This influx together with conflict over the country's mineral wealth helped touch off ethnic strife and civil war in DRC, which lasted from 1997 to 2002. Rebels from the different warring factions sought refuge in the forests of Virunga National Park. Goma - which houses offices for several conservation groups, including IGCP and WWF - was unsafe for much of this time.

This wasn't the only danger, however. In January 2002, one of Virunga's two active volcanoes, Nyiragongo, awoke, unleashing a torrent of lava that engulfed most of the town.

But despite the upheavals, field conservationists have continued their efforts.

"The then-warden of Virunga National Park was attacked during the war," says Dr Lanjouw. "People like him came back, however, and started their work afresh."

Bisidi Yalolo is another who keeps coming back. He works in the Environmental Programme for Virunga National Park (PEVi), run by WWF and the Virunga park authority. In 1996, his office in Goma was bombed. A project officer was killed with her children and the remaining staff had to flee the city. Yalolo walked for 18 days and 1,000km before reaching safety in Kenya.

"When things are very difficult, and attention is focused on military or humanitarian priorities, it is extremely important to continue to invest in protecting the reserves," says Dr Lanjouw. "In these situations, the government has no money left for conservation and the parks earn no money from tourism. WWF, IGCP, and other partners provide support to basic operations, such as providing equipment, uniforms, and salaries for park guards."

This support is vital to maintain normal park operations, such as protecting wildlife from poaching. However it's still dangerous work - many park guards lost their lives when they unexpectedly encountered rebels or poachers hiding in the park.

Peace accord

Since the signing of the peace accord in DRC a year ago, things are settling down. "Effort can now also go into building a future," says Dr Lanjouw.

One part of this is to encourage local communities to use natural resources responsibly and to help them develop environmentally friendly sources of income.

"Most of the villagers in this region are hanging onto life by their fingertips," says Yalolo. "They need land and natural resources to survive. The only way for these people to save gorilla habitat is to develop economic activities that not only take pressure off the forests, but also allow them to meet their daily needs."

The PEVi programme has established buffer zones around Virunga National Park, from which local communities can obtain wood. Tree nurseries and plantations have proved a popular source of income. Vegetable and honey production, improved livestock husbandry, and solar cookers are also helping to improve people's livelihoods and ease pressure off the park.

Gorilla ecotourism

In the parks, IGCP is promoting gorilla ecotourism as way to help local communities generate income. Tourists pay US$250 to spend an hour with mountain gorillas. In Uganda and Rwanda, the money is spent both on protecting national parks and investing in local development projects.

It is also a way of keeping the forest intact, says Dr Lanjouw. "The forest in which the gorillas live is indispensable to people's survival. Once it disappears, the land used for agriculture will suffer from erosion, loss of rainfall, and reduced fertility. So it's not a question of 'wildlife matters more than people', but 'wildlife and people need each other'."

Jikkie Jonkman is Press Officer at WWF-Netherlands

Mountain gorillas are a subspecies of eastern gorilla. The mountain gorilla, Gorilla beringei beringei, became known to science on 17 October 1902. Uncontrolled hunting, destruction of its forest habitat, and capture for the illegal pet trade, soon led to a dramatic decline in numbers and fears that the mountain gorilla would become extinct in the same century it was discovered. However, despite these dire predictions, work by conservation groups has seen the population growing from 624 in 1989 to approximately 700 today. Half of these gorillas are found in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the rest are in the Virunga Mountains, in habitat shared by Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in Northern Rwanda, and the southern sector of Virunga National Park in DRC.For further information on mountain gorillas, visit WWF.For a report by our correspondent, Anne Borzello, on the mountain gorilla eco-tourist project see: .