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Making Strides in Mountain Gorilla Conservation

In East Africa, the Fossey Fund is saving endangered apes
by protecting the environment that surrounds them

By Brent Stoller

Vacations Magazine: Making Strides in Mountain Gorilla Conservation
Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
The rare mountain gorillas of East Africa are one of nature's most enticing yet elusive species. Observing them requires a trek deep into the forest across mountainous terrain. But the moment you encounter these creatures, you realize the payoff is worth the effort.

Split between the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the gorillas have been pushed to the edge of extinction. Their environment has been disrupted by poachers' snares, by miners on the hunt for coltan (a metallic ore used to make electronics) and by nearby villagers seeking food, water and wood. These intrusions also have resulted in disease transmission between humans and apes.

In 1981, the Virunga population sunk to a low of 242. But ever since, it's been on the rise thanks to the life's work and legacy of an American primatologist.

Like many, Dian Fossey was mesmerized the first time she laid eyes on the mountain gorillas. She began a long-term study of the apes in 1966, and the following year established a research center in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park. Borrowing letters from two nearby mountains -- Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke -- she named it Karisoke.

While habituating the primates to her presence, Fossey bonded with one gorilla in particular, a male with a damaged finger whom she named Digit. The two developed a special friendship, which was immortalized in a National Geographic Society photo shoot.

Sadly, Digit was killed by poachers on New Year's Eve 1977. Determined to raise the profile of gorilla conservation, Fossey founded the Digit Fund, now known as the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

In December 1985, Fossey was found murdered under mysterious circumstances in her Rwandan cabin. She was buried alongside Digit at Karisoke, where she can rest in peace thanks to the continued success of the organization that bears her name.

Spearheading the Fossey Fund's preservation efforts are its field staff. Anti-poaching teams remove snares from the forest of Volcanoes National Park, while trackers work among the gorillas to compile data on their diets, ranging patterns and more. For instance, by monitoring the female named Poppy, who until her death this year was the last surviving gorilla studied by Fossey herself, researchers gained insights into the apes' reproductive habits.

The Fund also educates the park's surrounding communities about conservation and helps residents cultivate their own crops and livestock. Such initiatives reduce the need for villagers to invade the gorillas' habitat for necessities.

These strategies are working. As of 2016, when the most recent census was completed, the mountain gorilla population in the Virungas had swelled to 604. And the Fund isn't stopping there.

Thanks to a donation from Ellen DeGeneres and wife Portia de Rossi, a campus is under construction that will provide a permanent home for Karisoke. The Fund's fieldwork has been expanding as well. In addition to studying the gorillas themselves, the organization has begun working to better understand the apes' ecology: their environment, the other species that populate it and how they interact with both.

One focus has been bamboo, a source of food and shelter for the gorillas and other animals. Because of its strength and pliability, the plant also is used by people for items like clothing, furniture and even bicycle frames.

While a project is underway to provide locals with bamboo sources that are located outside the protected area, the Fund has been studying the status of the plant in Volcanoes National Park for more than seven years.

During the region's two rainy seasons, researchers make repeated trips into the forest to determine growth rates of existing bamboo shoots, to see if new shoots have sprouted and to assess how many shoots have been fed on by animals. "Doing all of that year after year gives us insights into possible changes in bamboo regeneration," says Yntze van der Hoek, a biodiversity scientist for the Fund.

Unfortunately, a decline in the plant has been detected. "If current trends hold, it could mean a problem for food availability for gorillas and other species," van der Hoek says.

One such species is the golden monkey, which devotes 70 percent of its diet to the plant. Between about 5,000 to 8,000 of these mammals remain, though the Fund focuses on 200 to 300 of them in Rwanda's Virunga Mountains and Gishwati forest.

Observation protocols are similar to those for the gorillas, as scientists document group compositions, movements and dynamics. Recently, researchers have begun learning how to differentiate individuals from one another, allowing for more detailed takeaways.

The study and conservation of these animals is critical for a number of reasons, including the tourism dollars they generate (treks to see the monkeys are available and highly recommended) and what their welfare might mean for the gorillas. "Because both species rely partially on the same resources, they could both be affected by the same changes," including climate change, van der Hoek says. "A look at population trends -- are they increasing or decreasing -- among one species might give us insights into what can happen with the other."

Volcanoes National Park's wetlands are another biodiversity barometer under examination. "Wetlands and the water they store have a key role in the functioning of the larger ecosystem, people included, which in turn links to gorillas in various ways, many of which we still need to study in much more detail," van der Hoek says.

Evidence suggests that the wetlands could be drying up due to atmospheric pollution, solar radiation, rainfall variations and other climatic conditions. They also are susceptible to locals using them as a water source. The Fund is analyzing the effects of this activity and looking at providing pumps or other collection systems so folks can get water from outside of the protected area.

Investigations into the plants and wildlife found in these swamps and marshes also are ongoing. Among the wetlands' most revealing residents are frogs, which van der Hoek refers to as "indicator species" because they are sensitive to environmental fluctuations. Researchers have identified seven to 10 types and are hopeful the study of these amphibians will help them better preserve the entire ecosystem.

"Continued monitoring of these frogs will tell us something about the health of the wetlands," he explains. "If the health of the wetlands does deteriorate, that might have cascading effects for gorillas."

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 their website to browse itineraries.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Fall 2019. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 291-3346 for current rates and details.

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