October 23, 2017

A Celebration of Mountain Gorilla Conservation

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International marks its 50th anniversary

By Brent Stoller

Vacations Magazine: A Celebration of Mountain Gorilla Conservation
The Dian Fossey Fund International
In the upper reaches of East Africa, where the air is crisp and the jungle is thick, the mountain gorilla fights for survival.

At last count, there were just under 900 remaining, divided between two locales: the Virunga Mountains, which span Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

These mammals hail from the same primate family as humans, Hominidae, and possess opposable thumbs, forward-facing eyes and large brains.

They function in families, led by a dominant male known as a silverback due to the swath of gray across its back. Females fill the role of primary caregivers. Young gorillas cling to their mothers until somewhere between the ages of 4 and 8, at which point they individuate, forging their own identities and friendships, not unlike human adolescents.

But sadly, apes face dangers that far exceed the frustrations of dealing with a burgeoning teenager. Their lives are threatened by poachers on the hunt for meat, and their habitat is jeopardized by deforestation from nearby villagers. Such infiltrations also lead to the transmission of disease. Even climate change has put the gorillas in peril, as variances in temperature and rainfall can decrease food sources while increasing thermal stress and the risk of forest fires.

Counteracting these human interferences has required human intervention -- an intervention that began more than a half-century ago and led to the establishment of what is known today as the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

Fossey, an American zoologist, used her life savings and a bank loan to explore Africa's animal kingdom in 1963. It was a trip that changed her forever.
Alongside two wildlife photographers, Fossey first encountered the mountain gorillas during a trek through the Ugandan forest. Intrigued by the creatures' contradictory nature, one of both insecurity and individuality, she returned home determined to conduct a long-term field study of the primates.

That day came in September 1967, when Fossey set up a two-tent research operation in an alpine meadow in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park. Blending the names of the two volcanoes on either side -- Mount Karisimbi to the south, Mount Visoke to the north -- she called it Karisoke.

Though she initially observed the gorillas from afar, Fossey eventually assimilated herself into the animals' culture by modeling their movements, mannerisms and vocalizations. Chewing celery stalks and impersonating their knuckle-walking gait allowed her to get even closer.

This access provided unprecedented insights into the primates' behavior and psychology and enabled Fossey to identify individuals by sketching their noseprints, a breakthrough that led to the creation of gorilla family trees.

By 1968 she had partially habituated four groups of gorillas. A gorilla from one of these groups was an approximately 5-year-old male with an injured finger on his right hand. Fossey affectionately named him Digit. The two developed a special friendship, a bond that was immortalized during a National Geographic photo shoot.

Tragically, Digit was killed on New Year's Eve 1977 while defending his mates from poachers. Subsequent gorilla slayings cemented Fossey's belief that the species' survival was dependent on more than just study; it demanded protection.

While Fossey had been using unconventional tactics to defend the gorillas -- donning masks to frighten poachers and spray-painting livestock to dissuade cattle herding in the forest, among others -- she realized she couldn't do it alone. To raise awareness and financial support, she established the Digit Fund, the precursor to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

Though she was brutally murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1985, Fossey's work continues through her eponymous organization, which today employs a four-pillar approach to conservation: community assistance, education, research and protection.

Given their proximity to human populations, gorillas are affected by the welfare of their neighbors. Unfortunately, surrounding villages suffer from substandard living conditions with insufficient access to food and clean water. This forces locals into the forest to hunt, collect firewood and clear land for farming, which disturbs and depletes the gorillas' environment.

To solve these scarcities, the Fossey Fund has established programs aimed at cultivating new water sources, as well as teaching villagers to raise food animals and grow alternative crops. Because malnutrition breeds disease, the Fund also has helped expand a community health clinic, including the addition of a maternity ward.

This assistance dovetails with the organization's educational efforts. Inspiring the next wave of scientists, the Fund provides teachers with the know-how to educate some 2,000 grade schoolers every year on the importance of conservation.

At the university level, the Fossey Fund impacts more than 400 students annually from colleges in Rwanda and Congo by teaching them research strategies and methodologies that aid conservation. In addition to interning after graduation, some students get the chance to conduct their senior thesis at Karisoke -- roughly 90 percent of whom go on to pursue science-related careers.

The tip of the Fossey Fund's spear is its research and protection initiatives, led by trackers who are in the field with the gorillas 365 days a year. Trackers typically are natives of the area and hired based on their knowledge of the forest and gorillas, as well as their physical capacity to handle what is a taxing, and often dangerous, job.

Rising before dawn, they navigate inclement weather and treacherous terrain -- not to mention the occasional charging buffalo -- to reach their assigned group of gorillas. Abandoned night nests, dung droppings and trails of flattened vegetation point the way.

Once they have located their group, trackers spend the next four to six hours recording GPS coordinates and observing the gorillas, noting pertinent behaviors, intergroup interactions and any changes to the family or individuals. This data is reported to Karisoke to create a snapshot of the species, from their demographics to ranging patterns, and informs further conservation strategies.

In Rwanda, trackers are charged with protecting approximately 117 gorillas in nine to 11 groups, or about half the population in Volcanoes National Park. They also assist antipoaching patrols in dismantling snares -- bamboo-and-rope devices that snag unsuspecting gorillas -- and warding off poacher attacks.

This constant presence in the forest has led to numerous tales of heroism. In December 2009, trackers discovered Turimaso, a 6-year-old female, trapped in a snare. After cutting the rope to free her, they noticed part of the snare still was on her wrist, causing her arm to swell. To prevent additional damage, it was determined the contraption would need to be removed completely -- a task that was easier said than done.

For starters, finding Turimaso again would be challenging, considering she was ranging in bamboo where visibility was poor. Additionally, the size of her group, as well as her propensity for keeping close to her silverback, Cantsbee, meant getting her alone would be difficult.

The following day, an 11-person team of trackers, veterinarians and a representative from the Rwandan park authorities headed back into the forest. Upon locating Turimaso, certain staff stood guard to keep other gorillas away as doctors removed the snare and treated wounds on the animal's hands, wrist and elbow.

Over the next few days, trackers monitored Turimaso to ensure her full recovery while antipoaching units disarmed more than 30 snares in the area, saving countless gorillas from future harm.

This past April, similar efforts saved Fasha, a 3-year-old male who went missing from his group. When trackers found him, he had a piece of rope around his ankle attached to a bamboo branch. Though Fasha had escaped a snare, the rope was wound so tightly (most likely because fellow gorillas had tried to loosen it) that he would need to be sedated to have it removed.

The next morning, veterinarians used a dart to put Fasha under, cleaned his wounds and administered antibiotics, all within about a half-hour. Shortly after, the young gorilla rejoined his group.

None of this would have been possible without the trackers. Had they not noticed Fasha had strayed, there's no telling what his fate could have been.
Success stories like these are indicative of the Fossey Fund's overall achievements. Between 1989 and 2003, the number of mountain gorillas increased by 17 percent. In the ensuing seven years, they surged another 26.3 percent.

And if recent accomplishments are an indication, there's hope this trend will continue when results of the current census are finalized later this year. In 2016, the organization educated 80 community leaders on conservation strategies in Volcanoes National Park; hosted a gorilla preservation movie series for more than 4,000 locals from 12 villages; and raised awareness with the debut of a gorilla conservation exhibit at Karisoke that's open to the public.

As the Fossey Fund celebrates its 50th anniversary on Sept. 24, the most telling testament to its work is the fact that the mountain gorillas are the only population of great apes on the rise.

Unfortunately, the outlook isn't as promising for Grauer's gorillas. Found exclusively in the Democratic Republic of Congo, they are the largest in stature of the four gorilla subspecies, with a broad build and a short muzzle. They get their name from Rudolf Grauer, the first Western scientist to identify them.

Like mountain gorillas, Grauer's gorillas have been pushed to the brink of extinction by hunters, poachers, disease and destruction of habitat. Civil conflict in Congo has exacerbated the problem, as armed rebels rule the forest and make conservation initiatives more dangerous.

Because these animals are dispersed across varying altitudes, from lowland jungles to Congo's eastern mountains, it is nearly impossible to survey their population. Experts estimate the current count to be somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 -- a 70 to 80 percent drop over the last two decades. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified the subspecies as one of the 25 most critically endangered primates on the planet.

To stem this tide, the Fossey Fund has established a permanent field facility in the Nkuba-Biruwe Research and Conservation Area. Adhering to the same principles as Karisoke, staff members conduct studies, educate locals and provide community support. Because the gorillas are not habituated to humans, five teams of trackers follow groups from a day's distance, collecting data off the food, footprints and nesting sites the animals leave behind.

Strides have been made. Not only does the Fund have a better understanding of Grauer's gorillas' diet, demography and genetic diversity, it has reduced poaching incidents to near-undetectable levels since opening its operation in 2012.

That same year, it also assisted in the rescue of an infant female Grauer's gorilla named Isangi. After her family was killed by poachers, she was cared for by Fossey Fund staff who helped nurse her back to health, both physically and emotionally.

In mid-2013, she was transferred to the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center in eastern Congo. GRACE, which was founded by the Fossey Fund and partner organizations but now operates independently, provides a safe haven for orphaned Grauer's gorillas. Its grounds include a 24-acre enclosure of lush forest, where the animals can forage, construct nests and mobilize in groups, just as they would in the wild.

Now nearly 5 years old, Isangi has flourished in these natural surroundings and is known for her playful personality.

VISITING THE GORILLAS
Vacations To Go is a corporate sponsor of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. The Houston-based, full-service travel agency is the world's largest seller of oceangoing cruises and river cruises. It also offers tropical resort stays, escorted tours and safaris in eastern and southern Africa, including trips to see the gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda.

Expert guides lead small parties of travelers through thick forests to family groups of gorillas, where participants spend about one hour observing the creatures. Certain rules and restrictions are in place to protect the primates. Guests are asked to maintain a calm demeanor and stay a minimum of 7 meters (23 feet) away from the animals. Children under the age of 15 and those who have colds or other contagious illnesses cannot participate.

For more information about escorted trips to the gorilla territories of Rwanda and Uganda, call the safari experts at Vacations To Go, (800) 291-3346, or visit www.AfricaSafari.com.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Fall 2017. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 291-3346 for current rates and details.


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