The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is a sub species of gorilla – the largest of all the great apes. They exist in two small areas in the western Rift Valley in central Africa – the Virunga Volcanoes that straddle Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and what is still often known as the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Reserve (a National Park in Uganda). Gorillas are Highly Endangered; only around 650 of these magnificent animals remain in the wild.
Mountain Gorillas and their Habitats
The Virunga Conservation Area is approximately 25 miles long and ranges from 6 to 12 miles across. It is covered by three parks that are ecologically one unit. About 80 square miles lies in DR Congo (Parc National des Virunga), 60 square miles are in Rwanda (Parc National des Volcans) and the small remaining north eastern portion of 28 square miles is in Uganda (Mgahinga Gorilla National Park). The Virungas are known for their characteristic profile formed by a line of six volcanoes – Muhabura, Gahinga, Sabyinyo, Visoke, Karisimbi and Mikeno. They are now dormant but one to the west, Nyiragongo, in the same geological formation near Goma came to world attention when it erupted in January 2002.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is in Uganda, 30 miles to the north of Virunga. It is about 130 square miles in size and is an ecologically very diverse area of dense forest criss-crossed with steep sided valleys and high hill tops.
Current Threats to the Gorillas
The population of mountain gorillas is small and very threatened, although it does appear for now to be stable. This is only due to the tireless efforts of the few dedicated locals and expatriates doing their best to counter each threat as it arises.
Poaching is an immediate day to day problem. Young gorillas can die in snares set for bushmeat and adults are killed so that their infants can be taken alive for private collectors. Six mountain gorillas are reported to have been killed in 2002 and at least three infants stolen. One, named Mvuyekure, was retrieved. No mountain gorilla has survived for very long in captivity and a decision was made to attempt the difficult task of reintroducing her to the wild. This was not successful and very sadly she died in January 2003. More recently, 2 babies have been retrieved and are being cared for in a larger captive group that includes lowland gorillas in an attempt to make their conditions more natural until they are large enough to be successfully accepted back in the wild.
The parks that the gorillas live in are surrounded by some of the most populated rural land in Africa, in places with more than 1,000 people per square mile. Furthermore many refugees in the region are looking for land on which to make a living. Much of the land in the parks is suitable for agriculture and, given that over 90% of Rwandan population depends on subsistence agriculture, the threat is obvious. Indeed in 1968, over 20,000 acres of the park in Rwanda was de-gazetted, about 40% of the total, and turned over to farmland. The situation is compounded by a considerable human need for wood and water. Over 95% of locals use wood as their primary energy source and the harvesting of it is widely done in an unsustainable manner, thereby increasing the risk that the park will be deforested over time. The forest is also a convenient source of water that in dry periods is in very short supply and this further encourages encroachment.
Mountain gorillas live in one of the most unstable parts of the world. The threats that this gives rise to are from military/paramilitary forces and refugees. In March 1999 a Ugandan gorilla tourist camp was attacked from DR Congo, with several visitors being murdered which caused a severe reduction in the parks’ revenues from tourism. More recently, while Rwanda itself is now very stable, lobbying from the conservation charities was required for the Rwandan government to make the welcome decision to stop the construction of a military road through the park which would have had considerable ecological consequences. During the Rwandan war thousands of refugees fled into the forests and had to survive by cutting firewood and killing game. Later the largest refugee camps the world has known were created on the edge of the park in DR Congo and the refugees understandably supplemented the food and firewood provided by humanitarian organisations with whatever meat and fuel they could obtain from the forest.
Great apes share more than 96% of their DNA with humans. This makes our anatomy and physiology so similar that gorillas are vulnerable to many of our diseases. They have not built up the same immunities as us over the years and as a consequence humans are potentially a source of disease that could devastate the gorilla population. This has been seen in western DR Congo where the Ebola virus has in recent years killed hundreds of the western lowland gorilla. The risk of disease comes from direct contact with park rangers, tourists (if not appropriately briefed and managed), poachers, wood cutters and water collectors or indirectly via human waste in all its forms!
How can these Threats be Addressed
Many of the threats to gorillas can best be met by making the gorillas and the parks they live in of economic benefit to the people living round them, so local people have an incentive for the park to survive. There is much clear evidence that this approach can be made to work.
Have a look at our project page to see how the Rwandan Gorilla Project is helping local communities co-exist with Mountain gorillas in the Virunga Conservation Area.