Friday, April 27, 2012

Silverback Inshuti Retreats to Mount Karisimbi

Dominant silverback InshutiMidway through the spring rainy season, when all of the Karisoke-monitored gorilla groups move down to the bamboo zone along the Volcanoes National Park border, one renegade silverback consistently leads his group farther up to the cold, misty, highest reaches of the volcanoes.

Why is it that Inshuti, year after year, chooses not to lead his group to
the prolific bamboo shoots along the border? Though it’s only speculation at this point, perhaps it is because he is the only male in his group and thus has no “backup” in the event of an interaction with another group. This leaves him more vulnerable to lone silverbacks and other males looking to steal his females. Heading down to the bamboo zone during the shoot season, the gorilla groups are forced into close proximity with one another and it is a time when inter-group interactions are on the rise and anything can happen.

In previous years, no outstanding event precipitated Inshuti’s retreat up to the higher elevations. This year, however, his decision to move up the slopes of Mount Karisimbi - an area where the research groups normally do not range - can be easily explained. The silverback has kept his group up on Mount Karisimbi ever since all the turmoil and drama that led to the loss of two of his females in January and February 2012. Inshuti was an injured, weakened silverback with no beta male. Considering all of the aggressions that he had endured in the previous months, it is not hard to understand his motive: move higher up in order to avoid lone silverbacks prowling for females and safely keep what is left of his former six-member group.
Karisoke researcher Winnie Eckardt, PhD, trekked to Inshuti’s group on Thursday, April 26th, aware that they were ranging at least four hours from the park border. With three Inshuti trackers, Phocas Nkunzingoma, Simon Havugimana and Gustave Busheja, the team climbed up Mount Karisimbi’s slopes to almost 3,800 meters (12,467 ft.).

Spanning the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mount Karisimbi is the highest volcano in the Virunga range at 4,507 meters (14,783 feet) and the fifth highest mountain in Africa. The subalpine and alpine zones are teeming with Rubus (blackberries) and Dendrosenecio. Along the trek up, the team passed what Dian Fossey described as many “barren, moon-like alpine meadows of Karisimbi” and continued to climb higher in elevation.

The field team found the group’s night nests at 3,680 meters, but continued upwards to find the four gorillas that remain in Inshuti’s group. The team moved quickly from the start, knowing that Inshuti's group was ranging far, confident in their many hours of experience on the mountains. But the quick ascent backfired, and Eckardt reported that altitude sickness had set in by the time the team reached the nest site. An unsettling nausea gripped the hardened gorilla researcher and her legs felt as if they had turned to stone.

It’s extremely cold, windy, misty and wet at this altitude and the gorillas too struggle in such difficult conditions. The field team reported that infant Akaruso, after losing his mother when she transferred to Giraneza’s group in February, continues to sleep with Inshuti. The silverback had built a deep, thick nest to deflect the cold wind. Another equally deep nest where Shangaza and infant Ngwino had slept was nearby.

In her book Gorillas In The Mist, Fossey described other gorillas retreating to Karisimbi’s slopes during her research. Lone silverbacks Bartok and Brahms both chose ranges on Karisimbi. And, when Brahms was shot in the chest by a poacher’s bow and arrow in 1971, he retreated up Karisimbi and stayed for an entire year before he successfully obtained two females and formed his own group.

Jessica Burbridge, Field Communications Officer

All Images © Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Virunga Massif's endangered Golden Monkey

Karisoke’s Biodiversity Program Manager Shares Skills with Rwandan Students

Students from Rwanda’s National University in Butare are visiting the Karisoke Research Center this week, working under Biodiversity Research and Monitoring Program Manager Deo Tuyisingize. Tuyisingize recently completed a two-month training in small mammal studies at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago under Julian Kerbis, Ph.D.

Upon arrival at Karisoke yesterday afternoon, the students mingled with Irish, American, Brazilian and Australian master's degree candidates from the University of Dublin and sat in on the visiting students' presentations. Today, the 15 third year zoology students visited Volcanoes National Park to practice data collection for bird ecology and the behavioral ecology of the endangered golden monkeys.

This afternoon, the zoology students found themselves examining skeletal remains of small mammal specimens back at Karisoke. Their training will be concluded tomorrow with large and small mammal surveying, trapping and identification. In addition, the botany students will undergo training in sampling and identification for plant phenology.

Tuyisingize explains why the training is important: “Small mammal communities have become indicators of environmental health and faunal diversity. However, at the current time, Rwanda does not have a single natural history institution or zoological department that is capable of processing (collecting, preparing, identifying, cataloguing) these small mammal specimens."

During Tuyisingize’s time in Chicago, he acquired important skills to develop his expertise in biodiversity conservation and traveled back to his home country equipped with dissection material, field data sheets, live traps and other necessities to carry out small mammal research at Karisoke. But Tuyisingize’s relationship with the Chicago Field Museum doesn’t end there. Dr. Kerbis will continue to collaborate with Tuyisingize on his research and plans to visit Rwanda in October 2012 to share his knowledge with the Karisoke and Rwandan Development Board staff in mammal ecology and conservation. In addition, all of the specimens collected in Rwanda have been sent to the Chicago Field Museum for analysis.

Jessica Burbridge, Field Communications Officer

Friday, April 13, 2012

"Learning From Our History To Build a Bright Future"

It has been 18 years since one of the most horrific genocides of the 20th century rocked the East African country of Rwanda, claiming the lives of almost a million people in just 100 days.

For the past week, the people of Rwanda have been participating in a genocide commemoration which culminates in a final day of mourning on Friday April 13th. Speeches have been made, testimonials given, memorials conducted, films were screened, flowers laid at grave sites and this year, over 10,000 genocide victims from a mass grave were given proper burials in the southern province.

Purple banners bearing the message “Learning from our history to build a bright future” were draped all across the city of Kigali. Small purple commemorative ribbons were pinned to shirts and, the Rwandan youth’s “Walk to Remember” was carried out all over the country. Healing and education are the two primary objectives of the annual commemoration weeks, and this year, Rwandan academics were encouraged to commit their testimonies to paper, to further the documentation of the 1994 genocide. “Plus Jamais - Never Again” still rings true in Rwanda. It is clearly important to older Rwandans that the younger generation understand how it happened, that they understand the history. They know that this is the only way to ensure that it will never happen again.

On Tuesday, Fossey Fund staff from the Kigali office and the Karisoke Research Center traveled to a village in the Ndera Sector, one hour south of Rwanda’s capital city, to visit a community of genocide survivors. In this remote village, perched on the top of a ridge and overlooking Rwanda’s lush green hills, live 39 individuals who comprise 18 families. This swath of land was gifted to them by the Rwandan government in 2008. Previous to 2008, these survivors were living all over the region, some as refugees, some with friends within the country. Every person, however, was one of the few remaining members of their families. Some were left utterly alone.

 These individuals have banded together to create a small, successful community; they have built a family where there was none. A villager proudly announced that three of their community members graduated from university last year, with degrees in information technology and economics. Two recently married.

The Fossey Fund gave a gift of 18 goats (one for each family unit) and distributed t-shirts, shared drinks and snacks and listened to the community members' testimonies.

Twenty-eight-year-old genocide survivor Ildephonse Ugiringabire spoke at length about the healing process since the genocide and the growth of his nation in the last 18 years. “I believe I can change my country with my knowledge -- help my people to believe that they have a good future, can get married, study at university, grow old...” Despite everything that these survivors have been through, on this bright, sunny Tuesday afternoon in the remote farmland of Rwanda, everyone was all smiles.

Jessica Burbridge, Field Communications Officer

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