Quantcast

Against All Odds, Mountain Gorilla Numbers Are on the Rise

Animals
Emilie Chen / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

By Jason Bittel

The news coming out of East Africa's Virunga Mountains these days would have made the late (and legendary) conservationist Dian Fossey very happy. According to the most recent census, the mountain gorillas introduced to the world in Gorillas in the Mist, Fossey's book and the film about her work, have grown their ranks from 480 animals in 2010 to 604 as of June 2016. Add another couple hundred apes living in scattered habitats to the south, and their population as a whole totals more than 1,000. Believe it or not, this makes the mountain gorilla subspecies the only great apes known to be increasing in number.


At first glance, 1,000 gorillas might not seem like a big deal. The International Union for Conservation of Nature still classifies the subspecies as critically endangered. Poaching and habitat destruction still threaten these giant primates with expressive faces and, as Fossey found, close-knit families. But to truly appreciate their population today, you have to go back more than half a century.

Mountain gorilla numbers were in veritable free fall during the 1960s, when Fossey began to study them closely. While she was working tirelessly to habituate the apes to her presence, livestock grazers were driving their herds ever farther into gorilla habitat. Humans were also clearing forests for charcoal and agriculture and setting snares to catch antelope and buffalo—snares that would also doom any great apes they inadvertently snagged. Meanwhile, poachers were increasingly targeting gorillas and their young for meat, trophies, and even the exotic pet trade.

The mountain gorilla population hit its nadir in 1981 when trackers counted just 242 individuals. At the time, Fossey said she didn't expect the subspecies to survive long enough to see the new millennium. Tragically, it was Fossey who didn't make it to the end of the century. In 1985 the world-renowned primatologist was murdered at her Rwandan research camp, Karisoke. The circumstances surrounding her death remain mysterious to this day.

Studying and protecting mountain gorillas has often meant great personal sacrifice. Over the past 20 years, more than 170 rangers have lost their lives while protecting the animals and their habitat. Just this past April, five rangers and their driver were ambushed and gunned down in Virunga National Park in the deadliest attack in the park's history; a local militia is thought to have been responsible.

The charcoal industry and the ever-present threat of homemade wire snares still endanger the gorillas, but those threats are seen as a consequence of people trying to survive in a region without many economic opportunities. "The local communities who live next to the gorillas are often extremely poor and reliant on the natural resources found in the national parks," writes Tara Stoinski, president and CEO of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

Stoinski said this is why it's important to loop locals into mountain gorilla recovery efforts. The Fossey Fund works to provide better access to food, water, and security, as well as education and job training, "so people are directly benefiting from the gorillas," she said. And in Rwanda, 10 percent of the park's entrance fees go directly toward improving the lives of local communities.

Furthermore, the slow but steady gains in mountain gorilla numbers show that quite a lot of people care about these beleaguered animals and are willing to work together to protect them. The census required cooperation from three separate governments (Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo), as well as numerous conservation organizations and locals living near the park.

Trackers spent 12 hours each day traversing ravines, climbing mountains, and generally trying to survive in the jungle, all while looking for piles of the animals' dung. The researchers sampled the dung for DNA, allowing them to determine just how many of these primates are out there. The DNA also provided clues about individual gorillas that had been known since birth but had disappeared in the past dozen years. The census found 13 such "lost" gorillas, which the scientists see as proof that despite a small population size, the apes are still capable of dispersing, mixing with other groups, and keeping their gene pool as robust as possible. "There is hope," said Stoinski. "The gorillas are improving despite incredible odds."

Stoinski said the gorillas' perseverance may inspire still more conservation efforts by showing people that they can make a difference, even when the outlook is grim. After all, the mountain gorillas never gave up—and neither have the men and women risking their lives to save them.

Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Aerial assessment of Hurricane Sandy damage in Connecticut. Dannel Malloy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Extreme weather events supercharged by climate change in 2012 led to nearly 1,000 more deaths, more than 20,000 additional hospitalizations, and cost the U.S. healthcare system $10 billion, a new report finds.

Read More Show Less
Giant sequoia trees at Sequoia National Park, California. lucky-photographer / iStock / Getty Images Plus

A Bay Area conservation group struck a deal to buy and to protect the world's largest remaining privately owned sequoia forest for $15.6 million. Now it needs to raise the money, according to CNN.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
This aerial view shows the Ogasayama Sports Park Ecopa Stadium, one of the venues for 2019 Rugby World Cup. MARTIN BUREAU / AFP / Getty Images

The Rugby World Cup starts Friday in Japan where Pacific Island teams from Samoa, Fiji and Tonga will face off against teams from industrialized nations. However, a new report from a UK-based NGO says that when the teams gather for the opening ceremony on Friday night and listen to the theme song "World In Union," the hypocrisy of climate injustice will take center stage.

Read More Show Less
Vera_Petrunina / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Wudan Yan

In June, New York Times journalist Andy Newman wrote an article titled, "If seeing the world helps ruin it, should we stay home?" In it, he raised the question of whether or not travel by plane, boat, or car—all of which contribute to climate change, rising sea levels, and melting glaciers—might pose a moral challenge to the responsibility that each of us has to not exacerbate the already catastrophic consequences of climate change. The premise of Newman's piece rests on his assertion that traveling "somewhere far away… is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change."

Read More Show Less
Volunteer caucasian woman giving grain to starving African children. Bartosz Hadyniak / E+ / Getty Images

By Frances Moore Lappé

Food will be scarce, expensive and less nutritious," CNN warns us in its coverage of the UN's new "Climate Change and Land" report. The New York Times announces that "Climate Change Threatens the World's Food Supply."

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
British Airways 757. Jon Osborne / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Adam Vaughan

Two-thirds of people in the UK think the amount people fly should be reined in to tackle climate change, polling has found.

Read More Show Less
Climate Week NYC

On Monday, Sept. 23, the Climate Group will kick off its 11th annual Climate Week NYC, a chance for governments, non-profits, businesses, communities and individuals to share possible solutions to the climate crisis while world leaders gather in the city for the UN Climate Action Summit.

Read More Show Less

By Pam Radtke Russell in New Orleans

Local TV weather forecasters have become foot soldiers in the war against climate misinformation. Over the past decade, a growing number of meteorologists and weathercasters have begun addressing the climate crisis either as part of their weather forecasts, or in separate, independent news reports to help their viewers understand what is happening and why it is important.

Read More Show Less