afrol News, 19 January - A census of mountain gorillas in the Virunga montane forests, on the borders of Congo Kinshasa (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda, has recorded an impressive 17 percent increase in the population of this highly endangered great ape. The recovery comes despite war and human displacements in the troubled are.
Undertaken late last year, the census is the first since 1989, thanks to the window of opportunity provided by new-found peace in Congo Kinshasa. A total of 380 mountain gorillas were recorded in the park, up 56 from the 324 counted more than a decade ago.
Together with the findings of another census undertaken in 2002 for the only other mountain gorilla population, in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, the total number of mountain gorillas in the world now officially stands at no less than 700, today reports the environmentalist group WWF.
The increase in the mountain gorilla population somewhat comes as a surprise to environmentalists, who had feared that the massive armed operations in the region for more than a decade would have negatively affected the population.
The region surrounding the park has been the scene of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a Rwandan civil war, a Congolese civil war, battles between rebels and regular troops from Rwanda, Uganda and Congo and volcanism. All this has naturally led to massive displacements of people, some streaming into the parks for protection. Government control measures have also been difficult to maintain. Nevertheless, environmentalists have been able to protect the gorillas.
- The results are a positive indication of how effective conservation can be accomplished in difficult conditions by closely engaging local people and park authorities in day-to-day activities such as monitoring gorillas and their habitats, says Annette Lanjouw of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP).
The gorilla protectors had established a ranger-based monitoring system, whereby parks and project rangers team up to continuously collect and analyse data on the gorillas and their habitat. The information is fed to park authorities in Congo, Rwanda and Uganda for their management decisions and plans. According to Ms Lanjouw, data generated in this way has greatly helped focus management and conservation activities to specifically address the threats faced by mountain gorillas.
The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), a subspecies of eastern gorillas, became known to science just over 100 years ago. 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.
By 1989 there were only some 620 remaining; however, ground-breaking work by conservation groups saw their numbers rise to an estimated 674 individuals by October 2002. The latest censuses of the two populations confirm that the total population has indeed grown.
- The recorded increase in mountain gorilla numbers is good news for conservationists who have endured very difficult working conditions in this strife-torn area over the past decade, today commented Marc Languy of WWF. "But while this is encouraging, the global mountain gorilla population is still low. Incidents of poaching or disease could easily wipe out these charismatic creatures from the face of the earth."
Ms Lanjouw emphasises the importance of cooperating with local stakeholders. "Efforts are focusing on ensuring that local communities benefit from conservation and conservation-related enterprises, so that together, local people and park managers can preserve the forests and their wildlife for the future," she says.
- Mountain gorillas are the key to making the forests more beneficial as conservation areas rather than agricultural land, adds Ms Lanjouw. "And this is the foundation for long-term conservation."
IGCP had led the Virunga mountain gorilla survey. Assisting were also local park authorities - such as Congolese ICCN, Rwanda's ORTPN and Uganda's UWA - and environmentalist agencies in the three Central African countries.
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