Monday, January 30, 2012

Injured Silverback Inshuti in Stable Condition - Fossey Fund Blog Post

Karisoke researcher Winnie Eckardt, Ph.D., accompanied the team assembled to assess the condition of injured dominant silverback Inshuti this morning. Eckardt reported that “although his injuries are indeed severe, the group leader appears to be toughing it out -- in typical Inshuti style” and a medical intervention was not necessary. She added “overall, the group appears to be exhausted from the incident and was traveling slowly, stopping frequently to rest.” With Inshuti injured, adult female Shangaza took the initiative to lead the group away from the one lone silverback who was still on the trail of the group.

Inshuti grooming himself.Inshuti grooming himself.
Karisoke trackers were able to successfully identify this remaining lone silverback as 21-year-old Turatsinze -- the same male that participated in an interaction with Titus group last November in an attempt to acquire female Ubufatanye (Fat). Turatsinze has been a lone silverback since 2006 when he dispersed from Pablo group on Oct. 18 of that year. It appears that he has traveled solo long enough -- and is anxious to start his own group.

And Inshuti is all too familiar with Turatsinze’s struggle. Interestingly, Inshuti is one of the few lone silverbacks observed by the Karisoke Research Center to build a group “from the ground up,” gradually acquiring one female after another. Eckardt reflects that he was “incredibly tenacious and tough. He wasn’t going to give up until he had formed his own group.” It appears that same strength and tenacity has served him well in keeping his group together.

Inshuti was observed directing “neigh vocalizations” towards female Taraja three times this morning. This could provide some insight as to what lured the lone silverbacks to his group. Over the last week, Inshuti was seen copulating with the female, which could indicate that she may be able to conceive again. Inshuti’s “neigh vocalizations” could have been an attempt to strengthen the bond between the pair, and deter her from leaving his group to accompany the lone silverback.

Inshuti was feeding very little today and his condition must be monitored closely throughout the next several days by Karisoke field staff. MGVP veterinarians will visit the group again Tuesday to ensure that he is recovering smoothly. As for Turatsinze -- the lone silverback was 700 meters from the group when the team left this afternoon and moving in the opposite direction. Trackers will continue to search for the missing lone silverback for identification purposes.

Jessica Burbridge, Field Communications Officer

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Silverback Leader Inshuti Attacked by Two Lone Silverbacks

Silverback Inshuti
Two lone silverbacks joined forces and attacked 24-year-old dominant silverback Inshuti today, reports Fossey Fund Field Data Coordinator John Ndayambaje. Inshuti sustained three large bite wounds on his head and one on his neck. Veterinarians Dr. Dawn Zimmerman and Dr. Jean-Felix Kinani (of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project), along with a team of Karisoke trackers, will trek to the group tomorrow to assess the damage and potentially carry out a medical intervention. Karisoke researcher Winnie Eckardt, PhD., will join the team to collect behavioral data and fecal samples for her ongoing study on stress in the mountain gorillas.

Ndayambaje reported that the interaction began in the Tamu area between Mount Visoke and Mount Karisimbi at 11:24 a.m. and lasted almost 2-1/2 hours, until the pair of silverbacks retreated from the group at 1:49 p.m. The unidentified silverbacks displayed 19 times throughout the first half of the interaction, pushing Inshuti and his group to travel over 1.5 kilometers through the forest, in an attempt to get away from the intruders. Inshuti displayed three times before the physical interaction began, when he sustained the bite wounds.

With the absence of any other males in the group to help Inshuti, the three females, Shangaza, Taraja and Nyandwi, participated in the interaction in defense of their infants and injured leader. The two infants remained on their mother’s backs throughout the entire interaction -- which the field staff found particularly interesting because, at almost 3 years old, both offspring are at an age that they would not normally need to travel on their mothers' backs. Females Shangaza and Taraja reportedly charged the two silverbacks twice. On the first occasion, they charged both silverbacks jointly, causing the males to turn and retreat. Next, they charged only one of the silverbacks, at which point, the other male charged the females, who then retreated. During this time, Inshuti attempted to display, but was too weak to chest beat and was only able to display with hooting vocalizations. Inshuti group trackers report that the pair of silverbacks are 350 meters away from the group at this time. Inshuti is said to be in critical condition and appears to be in quite a lot of pain.

Although the attackers are not yet officially identified, the field staff believes these two silverbacks could possibly be 15-year-old Gushimira and 14-year-old Twihangane, the gorillas that dispersed from Pablo group on August 16. However, there are currently six lone silverbacks that are monitored by the Karisoke Research Center in this area and realistically, the aggressors could be any of them. Along with the medical intervention team for Inshuti, another team of trackers will enter the forest tomorrow morning to track the silverbacks and attempt to identify the individuals.

Gorilla Program Manager Veronica Vecellio says that “this is not the first time that Inshuti has been involved in such an aggressive interaction -- he suffered serious wounds from both Beetsme and Pablo (late silverbacks) in the past. He is a strong individual and he will likely bounce back from this.”
Our Karisoke staff is, of course, enormously concerned and hopes that Inshuti will recover from these injuries. Without Inshuti, this group would be in disarray, with the two infants of the group in an extremely vulnerable position.

An account of tomorrow’s observations and possible medical intervention will be reported promptly.

Jessica Burbridge, Field Communications Officer

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Fossey Fund to Launch New Grauer’s Gorilla Monitoring Program in DRC

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International will be expanding its conservation efforts to launch a new Grauer’s (eastern lowland) gorilla monitoring initiative in the Democratic Republic of Congo, beginning January 2012. The Fund is currently in the process of hiring an additional thirty Congolese field staff (25 trackers and 5 team leaders) to carry out data collection and monitoring of six designated populations of Grauer’s gorilla in the DRC tropical forests. This follows many years of aiding in the establishment of a string of community nature reserves in the area.
Victims of a War-Torn Country
Between Congo’s Maiko and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks, there stretches a corridor of lush rainforest whose inhabitants have been left largely unprotected, exposed to the conflict and corruption that has plagued the country for so many years. With various bands of rebels moving through the landscape and the local communities struggling to survive, the forest, and it’s vast resources, has borne the brunt of this desperate situation.
Conservation efforts have been limited and challenged due to the civil war that has ravaged the region throughout the last two decades. The forest is filling with illegal loggers and miners, whose presence increases the demand for bushmeat as a protein source. The rich Congolese land is being mined for coltan - an expensive mineral being used in technology production (cell phones, computers, etc.) and also for tin, gold, diamonds, cobalt and copper.
A paved road cutting through the heart of the forest to a mine has also created easy access for illegal loggers to move in. Should the conditions stabilize, it is likely that commercial logging companies will join in the race for Congolese timber. Additionally, local communities rely on charcoal production and subsistence farming to meet their needs. As the human population grows, more forests are converted to farm land, further contributing to the deforestation. And the armed groups living in the forest continue to exploit it’s precious resources to finance their efforts. All of these issues combine to create what could be the perfect storm for this endangered subspecies of gorilla. It is clear that quick action is required if there is going to be hope for their survival.
The Fossey Fund’s “active conservation” approach, developed by Fossey in her early years of research, has proven to be an extremely successful conservation method for Rwanda’s mountain gorillas. The Fund sends anti-poaching rangers into the park daily to patrol for illegal activities and poaching. Trained trackers monitor the nine gorilla research groups 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In fact, due to this “active conservation” initiative, Rwanda’s mountain gorillas are the only monitored population of great apes in the world that is actually increasing. The Fund anticipates that by applying the active conservation approach to this corridor of forest, the Grauer’s gorilla population will receive some relief from external pressures and the international scientific community will benefit from an increase in data on this lesser known gorilla subspecies. 

The Grauer’s Gorillas of DRC
Dian Fossey helped to make the plight of the critically endangered mountain gorillas of Rwanda known around the world, and now, their lesser known kin is in dire need of conservation efforts. Relatively speaking, much less is known about the Grauer’s gorilla, primarily due to the long term instability of the region. In fact, conservationists can not conclude an approximate population estimate for the subspecies. According to the IUCN’s Red List of Endangered Species, there could be anywhere between 4,000 and 25,000 Grauer’s gorillas remaining in the wild. Without an accurate census conducted in the area, it is impossible to know just how many Grauer’s gorillas survive in the wild today, and thus, what kind of extinction risk the subspecies may be facing.
Both classified as Eastern Gorillas, the Grauer’s gorilla split from the mountain gorilla some 400,000 years ago. They retained some resemblance with one another, however there are a few distinct physiological differences. The mountain gorilla has darker, thicker, longer hair (suitable for the high altitude and cold climate), a wider face and more angular nostrils. The Grauer’s gorilla’s physique is more suited to the warmer lowland tropical forest of Congo. There is one characteristic that both subspecies undoubtedly share: ranging long distances to meet their seasonal diet and social needs. These ranging patterns bring the Grauer’s gorilla into the forests outside of the protected parks in search of ripe fruit and other vegetation, and directly into the path of danger.
All of the four orphaned gorillas confiscated by park authorities since April 2011 are Grauer’s gorillas, and each is suspected to have been captured in the forests surrounding Walikale. Without a presence of conservation organizations or authorities in DRC’s forests, poaching and other illegal activities can run rampant and the Grauer’s gorilla populations are continuing to be fragmented and reduced as the human population density in the region rapidly increases.

Direct Grauer's Monitoring Begins
Juan Carlos Bonilla, Fossey Fund Vice President of Africa Programs says “During the past decade, the Fossey Fund and its partners have succeeded in establishing community-managed forest reserves in the eastern DRC. Habitat protection is the essential condition for gorilla survival, a necessary, but not sufficient condition. Our new program will go deeper and focus on direct monitoring and protection of gorilla groups in this vast region.”
There is much to be learned about the Grauer’s gorilla, says Fossey Fund primatologist Dr. Winnie Eckardt. “With the mountain gorillas, we have extensively studied their demography, social behavior, reproductive patterns, ecology. But with the Grauer’s gorillas, we don’t even know their abundance or distribution, much less behavioral patterns. We look forward to expanding our research database and helping to contribute to the conservation of this subspecies.” The primatologist hopes to make the journey to Walikale at the beginning of next year to share her field knowledge with the new staff.
There are a myriad of challenges that the Fossey Fund will face in order to establish this new program in DRC. While Walikale is the logical place for the program’s headquarters, the town does not yet have electricity or running water. Using generator power, the Walikale headquarters will serve as the logistic and administrative base for the program. All data collection and field communications will be managed through the headquarters. However, three mobile (tented) field stations spread out through the forest will serve the immediate needs of the trackers.
The forest stretching between the Congolese national parks are referred to as “community forests” or “community reserves”. Within the DRC, there are over 485 villages, and therefore, 485 “customary kings”. A primary objective of the recent Walikale expedition was to travel from village to village (via motorbike) and meet with many of the kings within the reserves, to introduce the Fossey Fund and the new Grauer’s gorilla conservation initiative.
Urbain Ngobobo, a Congolese conservationist previously working with the Frankfort Zoological Society, has come aboard to spearhead the program. Urbain is capable, confident and excited to lead this important new conservation initiative. He has a firm grasp of the important link between the community and wildlife conservation, says Bonilla.
Ngobobo says that it is paramount to “consider the people, community, development and conservation because they are all linked. When you are only looking at the biodiversity aspect and overlooking community conservation, it’s really very difficult to succeed. This is one of the major causes of failure of our national parks’ conservation strategies in Congo.”

The Fossey Fund’s Karisoke Research Center field staff has perfected the art of orchestrating daily data collection and behavior monitoring over the last four decades. Shortly after the Walikale headquarters is established in January 2012, the Fossey Fund hopes to share this expertise with the new team of trackers in Congo to better prepare them for the important work that lies ahead. The new field staff will be selected based on their experience in the forest, their physical condition and general knowledge of conservation and the environment. The recruits will be subjected to a similar endurance test that Karisoke trackers undertake (climbing Mount Karisimbi - 4507 meters - in one day) to ensure that they are capable of handling the challenging conditions.
"The Fossey Fund's expertise as on-the-ground field experts has been developed over our 45-year history at the Karisoke Research Center. We are very happy to be able to bring our skills and knowledge to the Grauer's gorilla landscape and to work with our partners in the community managed reserves," says Clare Richardson, Fossey Fund president and CEO. "The Grauer's gorilla is the least known of the gorilla subspecies in terms of number and range, but we have identified six important groups and have now begun to monitor and protect them."

**This article was published in the Winter 2012 Gorilla Journal. To become a member of the Fossey Fund and get a copy of the Gorilla Journal mailed directly to you, click here.
Jessica Burbridge, Field Communications Officer

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

January 2012 Proves a Busy Time for Anti-Poaching Efforts

The holiday season and beginning weeks of the new year is notoriously a busy time for anti-poaching efforts in the Virunga Massif region.  And 2012 is shaping up to be no different. Through a combination of “routine” and “shock” patrols, the Fossey Fund’s Karisoke™ Research Center and the Rwanda Development Board’s anti-poaching rangers have already discovered and destroyed an astounding 73 snares in Volcanoes National Park this month. The confiscated snares were distributed throughout Sector II (between Mount Visoke and Mount Sabyinyo), Sector III (Mount Visoke to Mount Karisimbi) and Sector IV (Mount Karisimbi), with a concentration in Sector II and III - where the Karisoke-monitored gorilla groups range.
Field staff reported that the Sabyinyo and Pablo groups were dangerously close to the snares at the time of confiscation. In fact, Pablo’s group’s night nests were dispersed throughout the area laden with traps, with some nests just mere meters away from a snare. On Wednesday, Jan. 11, 12 snares were found and destroyed by Karisoke’s Pablo trackers, two of which had already been destroyed by the gorillas themselves when the trackers arrived. Although the field staff can’t be sure which of Pablo’s group’s 45 gorillas is responsible for dismantling the snares, 33-year-old dominant silverback Cantsbee has been observed destroying snares before, as was the group’s previous leader Pablo and silverback Shinda.

The Atypical Silverback: A Profile of Isabukuru

Isabukuru with infant Sakara“Isabukuru has always been one of my favorite animals - even years ago when he was just a blackback in Pablo’s group - because all of the females absolutely loved him” says Karisoke™ researcher Stacy Rosenbaum, who is currently carrying out a study on paternal investment in mountain gorillas. “I always knew that he would lead his own group as a dominant silverback someday.” These days, Isabukuru is a primary focus of her paternal investment study, because not only females are drawn to him, but also the youngsters.
“Isabukuru actively seeks out interactions with kids in a way that I’ve never seen another silverback do” says Rosenbaum. The gigantic silverback has been observed carefully carrying the tiny infants clutched to his chest, engaging in play behavior and patiently tolerating the youngsters’ antics like no other adult male would. Rosenbaum says that it is not uncommon for the young ones of his group to climb on top of his broad chest during the group’s resting periods, where they will attempt to push each other off in a lively game of “king of the hill.” The field staff all emphatically  agree that there is no other male gorilla monitored by Karisoke in the last decade that has taken such a great interest in his offspring.

Breaking out on his own

Maternal brother to Cantsbee, the renowned 33-year-old dominant silverback of Pablo’s group, Isabukuru possesses many of the same attributes that make Cantsbee so endearing to humans. Cantsbee is also extraordinarily tolerant of the youngsters in his group and can often be seen with a string of fluffy infants on his trail. However, when it comes to play time and deliberate interactions with the little ones, it is clear to all of the field staff that Isabukuru takes the cake for “dad of the year.”
Isabukuru and infantsThe “Don Juan” of mountain gorillas, Isabukuru frequently found himself in trouble with older brother Cantsbee during their time together in Pablo’s group. Even though Isabukuru was still just a blackback, he was exceptionally large for his age. The female gorillas were crazy about him and pursued him at every opportunity. As alpha silverback of the group, Cantsbee held strict mating rights and was not pleased when his little brother would mate with the females.
Fortunately for both brothers, an interaction between Susa’s and Pablo’s groups on June 26, 2007 allowed for Cantsbee to be free of his sibling competition and Isabukuru to break out on his own and start a new group. Four females, Icyizere, Muntu, Muganga and Ishema, transferred from Susa’s to Pablo’s group during the interaction. The next day, Pablo trackers returned to the forest to find only Ishema still within Pablo’s group. Isabukuru had left - taking his three newly acquired females with him. He was just 14 years old.

An interesting group dynamic

Kubaha, beta silverback (and the only other male) is an unusual member of Isabukuru’s group. Kubaha serves as the “watchdog” and can usually be found well outside of the group or traveling peripherally. Isabukuru does not allow Kubaha to mate with the females or play a strong role in the daily group dynamics. Only when confronted with the threat of another group or a lone silverback will Isabukuru join forces with Kubaha to defend the females and youngsters.
The dominant silverback’s wariness of his beta male could likely stem from an unfortunate incident of infanticide that occurred in July 2010. Isabukuru had traveled almost 600 meters away from his group to confront a lone silverback before the intruder could reach his females. While he was away, Kubaha attacked female Bukima and her seven-month-old infant Agatako (presumably Isabukuru’s offspring). The blackback bit the youngster and he died instantly.
Gorilla Program Manager Veronica Vecellio admits that Isabukuru’s tendency to leave his group unguarded is atypical for dominant silverback behavior. However, both the male and his female group members appear unperturbed by the occasional separation. The field staff hopes that this behavior won’t invite another such incident sometime in the future, but only time will tell.

Relaxed leader, relaxed group

Infant Kezara plays on Isabukuru's backOne thing is certain. With a tolerant and relaxed silverback like Isabukuru often comes a more relaxed group of gorillas. Rosenbaum says that to her, one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Isabukuru’s group is the amount of “group play” she observes. The researcher says that all of the adults within the group engage in play behavior on a regular basis, not only with the infants, but also with one another - a rare occurrence among mountain gorillas.
Female gorillas, youngsters or human observers - it seems that no one escapes Isabukuru’s charms. Stay tuned for a photo essay on the endearing silverback and his offspring in the coming weeks!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Rwandan Researcher at Karisoke To Receive Special Training in Chicago

With primatologist Felix Ndagijimana being named the first Rwandan director of the Karisoke Research Center yesterday (on what would have been Dian Fossey’s 80th birthday), it is fitting to follow up with another achievement in capacity building this week. Deo Tuyisingize, the Fossey Fund’s Karisoke Biodiversity Program manager, will be traveling to Chicago, IL, for a small mammal training period at the Chicago Field Museum for the months of February and March. Funded by the Field Museum and IDP Foundation, Inc., African Training Fund Awards, Tuyisingize will work in collaboration with Dr. Julian Kerbis, an expert in small mammals of the Albertine Rift region.

Tuyisingize says that their primary focus for the study are specimens that are poorly known and thus, difficult to identify, such as mice, bats, voles and shrews. These small mammals are important indicators of environmental health and biodiversity, play a pivotal role in floodplain food webs and can provide important insight into the spread of pathogens from animals to humans.

“Currently, Rwanda does not have a single natural history institution or even a zoological department that is able to process small mammal specimens,” says Tuyisingize. “Rwanda does not have the technical expertise in documenting, collecting, preparing, identifying, cataloguing and publishing data from small mammal communities.” Examining and processing these African specimens at the Chicago Field Museum alongside experienced scientists will provide knowledge and technical expertise that Tuyisingize can bring back to his country to empower fellow Rwandan scientists.

For more information about the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, please go to

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Fossey Fund Honors Dian’s 80th Birthday

One of “Leakey’s Angels”, a legend in both the world of primatology and conservation, would have turned 80 years old today, had her life not been cut short late one December night at the former Karisoke site, nestled between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Visoke. Dian Fossey was a tenacious, passionate woman who garnered the attention of the world to help save an important species from extinction. Although her death happened over a quarter of a century ago, her battle to save the endangered mountain gorillas carries on, through the work of The Fossey Fund and a handful of other important conservation organizations.

The Fossey Fund (created by Dian in 1977 and formerly called the Digit Fund in honor of her favorite gorilla, who was slain by poachers) has seen many changes over the years and has grown and evolved to become an internationally renowned conservation organization. With a purpose in capacity building within the country of Rwanda, the Fossey Fund achieved it’s ultimate success this year: naming a Rwandan researcher as the director of the Karisoke Research Center. Congratulations to Felix Ndagijimana on being promoted to Director of Karisoke!

For more information about The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and the Karisoke Research Center,
please click here.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Most Persistent Solitary Silverback


The Fossey Fund’s Karisoke™ Research Center routinely monitors nine groups of mountain gorillas. Ranging in the same area are six well-known solitary silverbacks that make appearances from time to time when they are searching out social groups in hopes of attracting females. By the end of 2011, Karisoke researchers had recorded 82 encounters with a lone silverback, 54 of which were active interactions with a social group. These interactions happened under a variety of different scenarios and lasted anywhere from mere seconds to an entire day, to weeks on end. While these silverbacks are frequently alone, they are almost always on the trail of another group, biding their time to make a move.

The behavior of the lone silverback

Solitary silverbacks spend several years - and sometimes their entire adult life - traveling alone. The young males are born and raised in the safety of a gorilla group, but as they grow into adults and the characteristic silver hair begins to show on their back, the desire to become dominant can cause them to strike out on their own. The silverback will then begin a lonely quest that may last for years, peppered with dramatic interactionss. Throughout that time, the lone silverback will periodically pursue a social group, usually with his eye on a specific female he would like to acquire. Displaying and vocalizing dramatically, he can push the group’s dominant silverback to react aggressively, sometimes resulting in violence or injury. More frequently however, the field staff observes "auditory interactions" between social groups and the lone silverbacks. This occurs when the lone silverback announces his presence with intimidating chest beats and hooting vocalizations, to which the silverbacks within the group will respond accordingly. Sometimes the interaction will end there, if the group is successful in discouraging the outsider.

Will persistence pay off?

Without a doubt, the most tenacious of these six lone silverbacks has been Gwiza, whom Karisoke trackers encountered 31 times in 2011. Gwiza left Shinda’s group in April 2004 when he was 16 years old. During the past eight years he has been observed traveling alone. Interestingly enough, since the death of dominant silverback Shinda and the subsequent group split, Gwiza’s interaction frequency has increased dramatically. The lone silverback routinely targets Ugenda’s and Ntambara’s groups (the two groups that resulted from thebreakup of Shinda's group). It seems that, despite his decision to live and travel alone, silverback Gwiza still does not want to stray too far from his origins....

To read the rest of the latest e News article on the Fossey Fund website, click here

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