Facing the threats of sporadic insecurity and poaching, the mountain gorillas of the Virungas have climbed back from a low of approximately 260 individuals in 1978, when many believed the mountain gorilla would become extinct. When considered against the backdrop of regional instability during the past decade, the increase seems even more encouraging for conservationists.
"This success would not be possible without an effective, collaborative effort across international borders," said WCS Conservationist Dr. Bill Weber, author of In The Kingdom of Gorillas and leader of the 1978 census. "To successfully protect this population under such challenging conditions speaks volumes about the commitment and determination of park personnel in conserving their natural heritage."
Between September and October of 2003, the census was conducted by staff from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the Office Rwandais de Tourisme et Parc Nationaux (ORTPN), the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN)--each of which manages a portion of the Virunga landscape--and other organizations. Six teams covered the mountain gorilla's entire range across three national parks--the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, the Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda, and the Parc National des Virunga in DRC. Participants recorded data on all gorilla nests and other signs, which were then used to establish the current estimate of 380 gorillas.
Although far fewer in number than their western relatives, mountain gorillas have had a profound effect on both the public and the naturalists who have encountered them. While collecting specimens in Africa for the American Museum of Natural History in the early 20th Century, U.S. explorer Carl Akeley became concerned about the future of the mountain gorilla, helping to establish Africa's first national park--now Parc National des Virunga--in 1925 to protect the gorillas. In 1959, George Schaller, senior vice president of WCS's Science and Exploration Program, conducted the first ecological study of mountain gorillas, estimating the total population at that time to be 450 individuals. The Virunga Volcano gorillas were made world-famous by Dr. Dian Fossey's long-term gorilla study in the 1970s and 80s, a period during which the gorilla population declined dramatically as a result of poaching and habitat loss. In 1979, WCS's Weber and Dr. Amy Vedder helped establish the Mountain Gorilla Project--forerunner of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) --that combined pioneering ecotourism and education programs, with a more traditional anti-poaching effort.
WCS continues to protect mountain gorillas through applied research on key conservation challenges, and by providing support for the national protected area authorities and the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC) in Uganda.
"The continued recovery of the mountain gorilla in the Virunga Volcanoes is great news at a time when it is desperately needed," added Weber. "It is also a remarkable example of effective conservation during times of both war and peace ."
Another population of 320 mountain gorillas exists in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which brings the current worldwide total of mountain gorillas to 700 individuals.
The census work was supported by WCS, IGCP, ITFC, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund--International & Europe, Berggorilla und Regenwald Directhilfe, Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.