Mountain gorillas are one of the most endangered animals in the world today. Scientists estimate that there are about 600 Mountain gorillas, living in two populations of about 300 individuals each and separated by about 20 miles. There is only 285 square miles of high-elevation rain forest in the whole world, which is in east-central Africa, and the gorillas’ natural habitat. These gorillas are highly endangered due to habitat loss, but also to poaching and war.
Despite their endangered status, Mountain gorillas had been one of conservation’s greatest success stories. Decades ago these gorillas were on the brink of extinction, but conservation efforts were able to reverse the decline and lead them onto the road to recovery. However, the Mountain gorillas now face a new threat, which is the aftermath of a tragic civil war that erupted in Rwanda in the early 1990s. This war claimed the lives of 500 000, and created refugee camps that contained 750 000 people living in poverty and desperation on the borders of the gorillas’ reserves. Ongoing political unrest is threatening to unravel almost 20 years of extraordinary conservation work.
There are no Mountain gorillas living in captivity. Only the other subspecies, the lowland gorilla, can be found in zoos. Mountain gorillas live at high altitudes of 10 000 feet or higher on the slopes of mountains or volcanoes. They are herbivores, eating plants like thistle, nettles and wild celery that grows in the cool, moist mountain climate of their range in Rwanda, Uganda and Zaire. Gorillas live in family troops led by the largest male, called the silverback. They are fiercely protective of their young and will literally defend them to death. Poachers that are after baby gorillas for international trade often kill entire families in order to capture their bounty.
From early in the 20th century, hunters and collectors from the United States and Europe began to kill or capture Mountain gorillas. 50 gorillas were taken as trophies or for collections in 25 years. Africa’s first national park was established for the gorillas in Zaire in 1925, by the Belgium government that was ruling at the time.
The gorillas were fairly well protected until 1960, however, civil war then erupted and park protection disappeared. Gorillas were caught in poachers’ snares that were set up to capture animals for food. They were also killed intentionally for their meat and parts: gorilla heads and hands were sold to tourists as souvenirs.
The gorillas have also lost large amounts of their habitat due to agriculture. They live in countries that have some of the highest human populations in the world. Every acre of land that is not protected is farmed. Mountain gorillas therefore live in islands of mountaintop habitat in a sea of human settlement. Terraced fields climb right to the border of the gorillas’ park, high up in the mountains. Sounds of children playing in the fields can even be heard in the park, an intense reminder of the relentless pressures the expanding population places on gorilla habitat.
In the late 1970s, a new era in conservation began when international conservations organisations established the Mountain Gorilla Project to educate Rowandans about the gorillas, anti-poaching and bringing gorilla tourism to the area. The program had profound effects on the local people’s attitudes. Gorillas were placed in carefully controlled areas so that tourists could view them at close range. This was so successful that at one time gorilla viewing was Rwanda’s third-largest earner of foreign currency. Similar programs were initiated on the Ugandan and Zaire sides of the volcanoes of the gorillas’ habitat. Rwandans realised that protecting the gorillas was in their economic interest.
When the Civil war broke out in Rwanda in the early 1990s, it surprisingly did not decimate gorilla populations itself. It did, however, inhibit gorilla tourism, cutting off the flow of much-needed foreign money. Despite tens of thousands of soldiers and refugees passing through the gorilla’s habitat, and other animals being poached for food, few gorillas were actually killed in the war.
Guards and researchers remained in the park to protect the gorillas until they were forced to leave; they did this at great personal risk. Some have managed to return to the park, but operations have not been able to resume to their formal level. Civil unrest continues to be a major problem, and forests in the habitats in Zaire are being denuded for firewood in refugee camps.
The future of Mountain gorillas is depending on whether a stable government can be reinstated and maintained in Rwanda, and whether the country can feed and house its refugees without destroying the park.
This video shows the Virunga National Park and their efforts to save and protect the gorillas, as well as demonstrating the danger that rangers subsequently face. The Virunga website.