Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Expedition to Congo's RGPU reserve rainforest in search of unhabituated Grauer's gorillas

In the last decade, the Fossey Fund has worked alongside local Congolese leaders to establish nine nature reserves that encompasses over 7,000 square miles of landscape.  But, because the Grauer’s range covers some 26,000 square miles (an area more than twice the size of the entire country of Rwanda), there is still much work to be done to ensure the conservation of this gorilla subspecies. The Fund plans to implement an “active conservation” methodology in one reserve after another, and slowly expand as resources allow.

Expeditions to the reserves are being completed now. Most recently, Urbain Ngobobo, Fossey Fund DRC Program Manager and Jessica Burbridge, Field Communications Officer, flew from Goma to the RGPU, the Punia Gorilla Reserve, via a bush plane through Kasese, DRC. The reserve is as remote as you can imagine. There are no dirt roads that connect the villages; they are only accessible by motorbike, through a network of narrow jungle paths that are at best extremely muddy and at worst, filled with organic obstacles and downright dangerous. The 4 hour, 32 kilometer motorbike ride from the airstrip through the rainforest led the team through mammoth clusters of bamboo, reaching 75 feet or higher, across slippery logs spanning rushing rivers and through many mud and thatch hut villages.
The primary objective of this particular trip was to determine the Grauer’s gorilla’s presence in the region. Throughout the 2 days, 30 kilometers and 17 hours of trekking through the rainforest, the team of nine UGADEC trackers and DFGFI staff discovered many gorilla nests, of varying age and decomposition. The team moved deeper into the forest, up and down countless mountains and ravines, and various other presence-indicators made an appearance - old feeding sites, piles of dung and finally, the characteristic knuckle print in the mud that led right to a group. The Grauer’s gorillas in this area are unhabituated though, and fled at the first sound of the team’s approach.

The two-day forest expedition also reinforced another vital element to the new program: anti-poaching. The first 2-3 kilometers into the trek, the team encountered many villagers toting wood, water and food out of the forest. Just beyond that zone however, the first snare was discovered, which was promptly destroyed. Two additional bamboo and wire snares and a trap designed to break the leg of it’s victim were found the first day. With a recent private donation for $200,000 to develop an anti-poaching program in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Fund intends to begin effectively counteracting poaching in the region as soon as possible.

This region of DRC is exceptionally rich in natural resources and evidence of human’s exploitation of these resources was everywhere. The first night in the forest was spent at an old mining camp, in tents pitched between sink holes for sifting minerals. Coltan, the highly valuable ore that goes into technology in the western world (cell phones, computers etc.) is the primary mineral mined in this area of the forest. In fact, the team observed sacks upon sacks of the blue-black mineral being toted out of the forest and flew back on a plane carrying 2,000 kilograms of it. In addition, rusted metal bins with smoke pouring from the top was a tell-tale indicator of palm oil production in the area. Many villagers were carrying wood out of the forest, some were collecting insects for protein consumption, but most baskets were filled to the brim with the orange-yellow palm fruit - from which the oil is extracted.  Palm oil and the correlating deforestation is most commonly associated with orangutans in Indonesia, but could this one day become one of the primary threats to the rainforests of DRC and it’s gorilla inhabitants?

There are a myriad of obstacles and challenges to consider as the Fossey Fund builds this new program. Working in the Democratic Republic of Congo is notoriously dangerous and extremely expensive, but the price tag is not too high for saving gorillas, one of the world's most crucial rainforests and the many other species who live in it.

Jessica Burbridge, Field Communications Officer

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