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Tourism: East Africa’s mountain gorilla population growing steadly

The mountain gorilla population in the Virunga Mountains has grown from 480 in 2010 to 604 as of June 2016, the just released results from census have revealed.

When combined with a separate mountain gorilla population living in Bwindi National Park in Uganda, according to the census, it brings the number of mountain gorillas to more than 1,000 primates.

The Virunga Massif Mountain gorilla census was conducted by the Protected Area Authorities in the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda (l’Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, the Rwanda Development Board and the Uganda Wildlife Authority) under the transboundary framework of the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration.

The census results revealed on Thursday reconfirm the mountain gorilla’s status as the only wild ape population whose numbers are known to be increasing, and research shows the increase is due to the type of intensive daily protection provided by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and the park authorities of Rwanda (Rwanda Development Board), Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Today’s announcement represents a huge success for conservation at a time when such success stories are increasingly rare. All those working to protect mountain gorillas, the governments of Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo; conservation organizations; and local communities have a lot to be proud of,” says Dr. Tara Stoinski, President and Chief Scientific Officer of the Fossey Fund.

Research has shown that the consistent increase in the mountain gorilla population is a result of the intensive daily protection provided by the national park authorities of the respective countries and conservation organizations, like the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

However, due to small numbers and the high level of threats, which include limited habitat, snares set for other animals, disease, and climate change, continued protection of the mountain gorilla population is crucial and must continue.

“The success that we see in gorilla conservation is in large part due to the high level of collaboration among the different stakeholders,” said Felix Ndagijimana, the Fossey Fund’s director of Rwanda programs and Karisoke Research Center.

Ndagijimana added that they were pleased to have played a part in the census.

The importance of conducting a census The current census represents the ninth population count of the Virunga mountain gorilla population since the early 1970s. After more than a decade of documented decline, the Virunga mountain gorilla population reached a low of 242 individuals in 1981.

The censuses conducted since that time show a consistent increase in the population to the 604 figure found today.

“The mountain gorilla census is a great example of why continued research is essential to long-term conservation efforts. These repeated counts provide critical insights into overall population trends, confirm that intensive protection efforts are working, and provide all partners with a basis for good conservation planning,” Ndagijimana said.

The gorilla population continues to grow but is confined to a very small area. The Virunga habitat is roughly 451 square kilometers underscores the need for continued research to understand the longer-term impacts of population growth in relation to their conservation.

Today’s news coincides with the Fossey Fund’s building of a new gorilla conservation center in Rwanda named the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

The multi-acre, purpose- built campus will be the new home of the more than 50-year-old Karisoke Research Center, which is the hub of the Fossey Fund’s protection, research, training and community outreach programs in Rwanda.

It will also include traditional and living laboratories; classrooms for training and public education; meeting spaces; a library and computer lab; an interactive public exhibit; and housing for visiting researchers and students.

According to the Fossey Fund Research Manager in Rwanda, Dr. Winnie Eckardt who also played an important role in conducting the census as a co-instructor for the team members, the census outcomes are reliable.

“The census outcome is only as accurate and reliable as the quality of data collected by the teams. Therefore, all teams underwent an intensive five-day training, including theoretical and practical lessons,” says Dr. Eckardt.
“Using handheld electronic devices for data entry for the first time in a mountain gorilla census added another challenge for the instructors, but their implementation became a great success,” she adds.

The current census of the Virunga mountain gorillas does not include a separate population of mountain gorillas living in Uganda’s Bwindi forest. A census of those gorillas in 2011 showed approximately 400 gorillas and a new census is currently underway there.

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