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
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