A Triumph in Mountain Gorilla Conservation
Thanks to efforts led by Dian Fossey's legacy organization,
the population of great apes in East Africa remains on the rise
By Brent Stoller
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
With forward-facing eyes, large brains and opposable thumbs, these primates are humans' closest relatives in the animal kingdom, sharing 97 percent of our DNA. They travel in groups led by a dominant male known as a silverback due to the band of gray hair across its back. Females typically begin giving birth around age 10 and serve as primary caregivers to their young. Similar to our 4- to 8-year-olds, juveniles enjoy playing with friends and experimenting with their independence.
The mountain gorillas are divided into two populations -- one in the Virunga Mountains of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo; the other in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Boasting thick fur to withstand the chill at higher elevations, they subsist on bamboo, bark and more and can live as long as 30 or 40 years.
Sadly, too many never get that chance. One of the world's most endangered species, these primates are under constant threat from snares set by poachers, the effects of climate change and loss of habitat. Nearby villagers, driven by poverty, invade the gorillas' environment for clean water and grazing land for livestock, and miners cause disruptions while searching for coltan, a metallic ore used to make electronics. Such infiltrations also expose the animals to deadly diseases.
But thanks to conservation efforts started by an American zoologist more than a half-century ago, the gorillas now have a glimmer of hope.
In 1963, Dian Fossey leveraged her life savings and a bank loan into a dream trip through Africa, where she first encountered the mountain gorillas in a Ugandan forest. Enthralled, she vowed to one day return and study these magnificent mammals.
Fossey delivered on that promise in 1966 when she came back to head a field analysis. On Sept. 24, 1967, she established a research center in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park. She called it Karisoke, an homage to the two inactive volcanoes, Mount Karisimbi and Mount Visoke, that loomed on either side of her camp.
To collect the detailed data she sought, Fossey had to habituate the apes to her presence. This was no small task. But by mimicking the animals' vocalizations, feeding behaviors and knuckle-walking gait, she eventually earned their trust.
The more time Fossey spent with the gorillas, the more she understood their fight for survival. Joining the battle, she employed unconventional protection tactics such as setting fires to snares, spray painting cattle to deter herders, even sporting masks to frighten poachers.
While these strategies, along with Fossey using her own money to buy the necessary gear and supplies, led to Karisoke's first antipoaching patrols, they could not save one of her closest allies -- a male gorilla she affectionately had named Digit due to a damaged finger on his right hand. Over 10 years, the two developed a special bond and were featured in a National Geographic Society photo shoot.
But on Dec. 31, 1977, Digit was savagely murdered while warding off poachers, though his heroism allowed his mates to escape. Turning tragedy into triumph, Fossey formed what's now known as the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, one of the world leaders in gorilla preservation.
Sadly, Fossey was killed in 1985 under mysterious circumstances in Rwanda. Yet her legacy continues to grow through the work of the conservation organization that bears her name.
The Fossey Fund's efforts are spearheaded by its 80-member field staff, which spends 365 days a year among the gorillas. Trackers locate their assigned gorilla family by tracing the trampled foliage that leads away from the animals' most recent nesting spot. Once with their subjects, they document the apes' location, physical well-being and notable behaviors, as well as any changes in the group's composition -- all of which gets compiled into a centralized database. They also cite the status of the plant life and wildlife, as the health of the habitat can provide insights into the health of the gorillas.
The Fund currently tracks around 115 gorillas among 10 groups in Volcanoes National Park. Additionally, antipoaching teams roam the protected region to remove snares and defend against illicit deforestation and water collection.
To reduce these intrusions of the gorillas' home, the Fossey Fund aims to raise the living standards in surrounding communities, helping locals gain access to clean water, nutritional food sources and improved health care. In the village of Bisate, a medical clinic was expanded and now features a maternity ward.
Knowing conservation requires collaboration, the Fund has worked at getting as many people as possible invested in the cause. In Rwandan villages, they host preservation-themed movies, which have been attended by thousands. Workshops and guided tours to see the gorillas have been organized for community leaders, and school programs educate local teachers and students about biodiversity, scientific methods and the importance of environmental protection. In 2017, 400 Rwandan university science students and 19 postgraduate interns enhanced their field skills and research techniques while training at Karisoke.
Overall, these initiatives have worked. Throughout the 1970s, the number of gorillas in the Virunga Mountains steadily declined, bottoming out at 242 in 1981. But by 2003, that figure had rebounded to 380, and over the next seven years swelled to 480, making the species the only wild ape with a population known to be on the rise.
And thankfully, that upward trend continues today. The latest census, released in May, found 604 gorillas in the Virunga Mountains. Given the roughly 400 in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, this brings the total number of mountain gorillas to just more than 1,000. (A count of Bwindi's population began in March and is ongoing.)
"The continuous population growth remains a unique conservation success," says scientist Winnie Eckardt, research manager for the Fossey Fund in Rwanda. "The increase of a minimum of 124 from 2010 to 2016 is an incredible achievement considering the slow reproduction rate in great apes."
Conducted by the park authorities of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo with support from the Fossey Fund and other organizations, the census provided preservationists with a snapshot both of the gorillas' current state and the effectiveness of existing protection strategies.
"There are also other benefits," says Eckardt, "including genetic information gleaned from fecal samples, which also helps confirm identities; seeing how the population is spread out within the habitat; and observing threats to the habitat as well as other wildlife, such as large mammals -- all of which are important for effective conservation planning."
The census consisted of two sweeps -- the first in fall 2015, the second in spring 2016. Each lasted around 11 weeks and covered the entire Virunga range of the mountain gorillas, some 175 square miles. "It was a massive logistic undertaking spanning three countries," Eckardt says.
Before starting, staffers were put through a five-day training that covered all aspects of the operation, from gorilla tracking and specimen preservation to communication and navigational procedures. Whereas information was recorded with pencil and paper in the previous eight censuses, the 2015-16 edition utilized electronic devices, meaning participants had to learn to use the data-entry software CyberTracker as well as a specially designed app.
"The census outcome is only as accurate and reliable as the quality of data collected," explains Eckardt, who helped train team members and spent time in the field during each sweep.
After rehearsing numerous reconnaissance missions, or "recces," six census teams headed into the jungle. A typical day tested staffers mentally and physically, requiring an intense concentration amid harsh working conditions. "There are challenges inherent in the terrain and weather here, with cool temperatures, heavy rains, high altitudes and lots of climbing during the long daily hikes," says Eckardt.
Following a hearty breakfast, team members would begin their more than 10 hours of hiking on the hunt for the apes' last known shelter. "Gorillas are not counted directly, but through individual fecal samples dropped in night nests," Eckardt explains.
To gauge the age and gender of the gorillas, participants searched the nests for discarded hair -- the presence of silver follicles, for instance, would indicate the presence of silverbacks -- and measured any dung, from which they would extract a sample with wooden applicators. Each sample was preserved in a tube and labeled in preparation for DNA testing (to establish identity) and gastrointestinal analysis (to determine health status). Like trackers, team members also evaluated the habitat for signs of other large animals and illegal activity, including snares.
Back at camp, staffers were made to feel at home by on-site cooks, who not only ensured appetites were satisfied but tended to responsibilities like gathering firewood and water. "We called them our 'camp mums' because of the way they take care of everyone and help in so many ways," Eckardt says.
Once the sweeps were completed, genetic testing on the fecal matter was conducted and reports were compiled and finalized. And what did conservationists learn from this multiyear project?
"Daily protection works!" exclaims Eckardt. "And collaboration among partners, including government authorities, is crucial," noting the census could not have happened without it. "We also learned the threat to gorillas posed through snares remains high in the Virunga massif and needs to be addressed intensively," she says.
One pleasant surprise was the identification of 13 apes that previously had been monitored by the Fund before transferring out of Karisoke's protected area. "The DNA analyses showed us where they were and gave us information about their new groups," Eckardt says.
Undoubtedly, the growth in the number of mountain gorillas is a monumental triumph worthy of celebration. But make no mistake: These primates remain in peril. And the status of Grauer's gorillas, a separate subspecies of great apes in Congo, is even bleaker, given their population has plummeted 77 percent over the last two decades.
In short, there's still work to be done.
Last year, the Fossey Fund performed more than 500 antipoaching patrols in Rwanda and broadened its protection area for mountain gorillas to more than one-third of Volcanoes National Park. A similar expansion occurred in Congo, where five tracker teams now survey and safeguard Grauer's gorillas throughout a 425-square-mile region, an increase in coverage area of 57 percent.
To support these efforts, TV personality Ellen DeGeneres and wife Portia de Rossi generously have pledged to help build a new home for the Fossey Fund in Rwanda. The campus will boast classrooms, laboratories and interactive exhibits, among other features.
"This will be a center for gorilla conservation in all its aspects, including science, education, public participation and awareness, and protection efforts close to the local communities around the park," Eckardt says. "And it will be purpose-built, allowing us to conduct all these activities in a permanent campus that is open to all."
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 think 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.
Several tour operators offer escorted trips to the gorilla territories of East Africa, covering a range of travel styles and budgets. In 2019, Tauck debuts its first itineraries that feature treks to observe the wild apes in Rwanda.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Fall 2018. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 291-3346 for current rates and details.