Virunga's mountain gorillas still under pressure

Posted: 28 July 2004

Despite the good news reported earlier this year on this website of an increase in the population of mountain gorillas in Central Africa's Virunga National Park, recent deforestation in the region by illegal settlers has destroyed around 15 square kilometres of prime gorilla habitat, further threatening the specie's fragile existence, warn conservation groups.

Since April, some 6,000 of people, mainly from Rwanda and some from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), have cleared large tracts of forest in the Mikeno sector of the Virunga National Park for agriculture and livestock.

Map: Mikeno sector of Virunga National Park
Map: Mikeno sector of Virunga National Park
Located in DRC on the border with Rwanda and Uganda, Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site, is home to more than half the 700 remaining mountain gorillas - one of the world's most critically endangered species.
Virunga National Park. Photo: UNESCO World Heritage Project
Virunga National Park. Photo: UNESCO World Heritage Project
Virunga National Park (Democratic Republic of the Congo) is mainly composed of tropical forest, grasslands, swamps, steppes, snowfields, lava plains and savannas.© UNESCO/World Heritage Project
According to local conservation groups, the settlers were able to move into the area to farm illegally in the park, with support from local influential individuals who sold plots of land for clearing. The forested plots were entirely cut down and turned into timber or charcoal before crops were planted.

Threatened habitat

Mountain Gorilla. Photo: Ian Redmond/UNESCO
Mountain Gorilla. Photo: Ian Redmond/UNESCO
Mountain Gorilla© Ian Redmond/UNESCO
The mountain gorillas occupy only a small 'island' of suitable habitat of around 425 square kilometres in Virunga and further encroachment could be devastating for the species, warn conservationists. Habitat loss reduces the gorilla's breeding area and reduces important patches of bamboo and other vegetation that form part of their diet.

Habitat loss is "the worst threat to this species," says Marc Languy, Co-ordinator of WWF's programme in the Albertine Rift. "It is also a loss for the local communities as the forest provides many ecological and economical services to the neighbouring population, and many local people benefit from gorilla tourism revenues."

Currently, mountain gorilla generates around US$2 million for the region annually from tourism.

Stopping the settlers

"Recent meetings between administrative and military authorities from DRC and Rwanda have been very positive and have apparently led to the removal of illegal settlers and a cessation in forest clearance," says Dr Peter J. Stephenson, Co-ordinator of WWF's African Great Apes Programme.

"However, WWF remains very concerned that if clear instructions are not given by the highest levels of government in Rwanda and DRC to their local authorities, the destruction will restart and expand even further," he adds. Conservationists are also calling on the international community to fund park patrols, the peaceful evacuation of illegal settlers, and the restoration of destroyed areas. Already in the June three park staff were murdered.

Not only is Virunga Park one of only two places on Earth where mountain gorillas exist, it is also one of the most important conservation areas in Africa, harbouring over 200 species of mammals and over 700 species of birds, many of them endangered. Conservationists are urging both the governments of Rwanda and the DRC to take measures to enforce the UN World Heritage Convention that protects this unique site.

Related links: More on mountain gorillas

WWF's African Great Apes Programme

Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature

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Mountain gorillas increase, despite war