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Mountain gorilla population grows

13/11/2012 09:53:16

Mountain gorilla number are estimated to be 880, which is the highest for many years. Photo credit Paul Gldstein

Some good news at last, but the threats are ever present and the huge conservation effort must continue
November 2012. The total world population of mountain gorillas has risen to 880, according to census data released by the Uganda Wildlife Authority. The number of mountain gorillas has increased from the 2010 estimate of 786 after a count in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The critically endangered animals live only in two locations, Bwindi and the Virunga Massif area, which spans parts of Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.

Growing population for 10 years
A total of 400 mountain gorillas have been confirmed to be living in Bwindi and 480 were counted in the Virunga Massif in 2010. Both populations have had positive trends in population growth over the last decade.

"Mountain gorillas are the only great ape experiencing a population increase. This is largely due to intensive conservation efforts and successful community engagement," said David Greer, WWF's African Great Ape Programme Manager.

Major tourist attraction
Many mountain gorilla groups have been habituated to human presence and are a major tourist draw. In addition to supporting the important surveillance activities of park staff, visitor revenue has been reinvested into community projects such as wells and schools.

Oil prospects and dangers in Virunga

British oil company, SOCO, has been involved with the search for oil in and around Virunga National Park. They have released the following statement about their work in Virunga, which, it should be noted, is being carried out with permission from DRC government and in conjunction with Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN).

An aerial survey is the only exploration activity planned at this time and, as stated above, has been given the go ahead by the DRC Government within the context of its Strategic Environment Evaluation. The aerial survey will involve a helicopter flying over Lake Edward and the adjacent lowland savannah to gather magnetic and gravity information. The helicopter will not touch down in the Virunga National Park, and the highland area that forms the Mountain Gorilla habitat is not within the helicopter flight path. There is no reason for any flora or fauna to be impacted as a direct result of this phase of the Company's activities.

In parallel with the aerial survey, SOCO will carry out several environmental baseline studies (for example: an inventory of hippopotami, and fish and mollusc studies on Lake Edward). These studies have been determined through close collaboration with the Congolese Wildlife Authority ('Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature' or 'ICCN') and the Congo Environmental Studies Group ('GEEC').

During this preliminary phase, SOCO has been granted access to the Virunga National Park under an agreement with ICCN which was signed in May 2011 by two senior figures in ICCN (the Chairman of the Board and the Director General). The same agreement requires SOCO to pay a fee to ICCN to provide access to SOCO and to monitor SOCO's activities whilst inside the Park.

Threats - Snares, disease and habitat loss
The greatest current threats to mountain gorillas are entanglement in hunting snares, disease transfer from humans, and habitat loss. The prospect of oil exploration in Democratic Republic of the Congo's Virunga National Park by petroleum companies is also cause for concern.

Virunga under threat
While oil drilling would not occur directly in gorilla habitat, industrial activity would compromise the integrity of Virunga National Park, Africa's first national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An influx of workers and heavy equipment could greatly threaten the park's prized biodiversity, which also includes elephants, hippos and the rare okapi antelope.

Seven gorillas caught in snares
"More people in Virunga would likely lead to an increase in deforestation, illegal hunting and more snares in the forest," Greer says. "At least seven Virunga mountain gorillas have been caught in snares this year and two did not survive. The gorilla population remains fragile and could easily slip into decline if conservation management was to be disregarded in the pursuit of oil money by elites."

36 groups of gorillas in Bwindi
Mountain gorillas live in social groups and the census results indicate that the 400 mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park form 36 distinct social groups and 16 solitary males. Ten of these social groups are habituated to human presence for either tourism or research.

The Bwindi mountain gorilla census was conducted by the Uganda Wildlife Authority with support from l'Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature and the Rwanda Development Board. The census was also supported by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (a coalition of the African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna & Flora International, and WWF), the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Conservation Through Public Health, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, the Institute for Tropical Forest Conservation, and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

This census was funded by WWF-Sweden with supplemental support from Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe e.V., the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

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