The battle to save mountain gorillas


It is now 40 years since the film that opened people’s eyes to mountain gorillas in Sir David Attenborough’s Life on Earth series was screened on the BBC. Previously it was only through King Kong that people related to mountain gorillas than the wildlife reality including the presenter himself before he filmed them.

By the time of this first filming, there were very few mountain gorillas in the world, numbering to under 250 apes that were predicted to be extinct by the end of the century.

Today the story has changed, with the latest gorilla census estimates indicating that there are more than 1,004 mountain gorillas in the world, making them the second ape to humans to be increasing in number. Although mountain gorillas are still endangered, their increase in number points at a conservation success story, thanks to conservationist, promoters like Sir David and the unforgettable effort of Dian Fossey, a primatologist who sacrificed her life in 1970s for conservation of mountain gorillas.

Mountain gorilla trekkers can visit Dian Fossey’s grave, which is situated in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda where she did most of her work trying to save the then critically endangered mountain gorillas.

Sir David’s tremendous work is clearly visible and you can appreciate it when you visit Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and you will also find the descendants of the cheeky gorillas he filmed.

Back in the70s, gorillas were a vulnerable target to poachers, they stole baby gorillas for sell and also cut off their hands and feet as trophies.

According to the recent census exclusively carried out for the mirror, sisters, Poppy Puck and Tuck the three female gorillas that in David’s film, have 26 children, 17 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Poppy was the last of the bunch alive until last year before she went missing when she was 42. She is thought to have died of natural causes but her daughter Ururabo is so much alive with her family always entertaining guests.

Mountain gorillas were prey in 1970s and this was evident when a male christened Digit was speared to death and his hands and feet were hacked off by poachers. Later, six months after David had left, two more gorillas, a male and female were shot dead leaving behind a daughter, Kweli, who also later died.

Sir David’s incredible work of unveiling mountain gorillas as a hidden treasure had an instant impact as the first habituated gorilla was created for structured visits of tourists. Improvements in gorilla conservation continued and in 1986, the park introduced full time veterinary care where gorilla doctors regularly check the apes for life-threatening wounds and diseases.

The conservation efforts have curbed direct poaching in Rwanda and Uganda though the vice is still going on in the remaining part of the Virunga mountains majorly in DRC due to political instabilities.

Rwanda in particular has taken conservation of mountain gorillas to another level as the government took a decision last year to add 4,000 hectares to Volcanoes national park where the gorillas are protected.

Mountain gorillas and the threat of poaching

Recently the rangers in Volcanoes national park came across a trapped baby gorilla stuck in the snare. She was gripped around the wrist and hung terrified from a branch as she was separated from her family.

According to vet Dr Jean Bosco Noheli, one of the gorilla doctors in charge of the welfare of mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda and DRC, the rangers were shocked and upset and some even cried after seeing this infant gorilla undergoing the pain and calling for help. He says that they were able to release the trapped baby gorilla from the snare and carried her back to her family. This incident is a highlight of the threats from poachers faced by the endangered mountain gorillas of the Virunga mountains.

The snares are laid by the desperate poachers who stay around park, trapped by poverty with the hope of capturing bush animals like antelopes for meat. Unfortunately, the unsuspecting and innocent gorillas also fall prey.

Dr Jean explains that poachers tie snares to bamboo poles, with the loop hidden in the leaves on the ground connected to a twig that acts like a trigger once the animal steps on it. He says that the young gorilla’s attempt to get free could have resulted into serious wounds and infections which may have led to amputation in order to save her from a slow, painful death.

Dr Jean says “I have carried out many amputations. Afterwards, females can live a fairly normal life, but silverbacks can’t fight and lead their groups, and they become lone. Living alone, they waste the chance to reproduce”.

The same tragedy happened on the Uganda side of the same forest when the gorilla doctors found a 20-year old female gorilla trapped in a snare. She was also rescued quickly unharmed thanks to those who closely monitor the apes. The forest is regularly patrolled by anti-poaching teams removing traps in a continuous fight ensure a safe environment for wildlife. This effort saw the removal of around 600 snares last year, a number which is down from more than 1,000 snares that were removed four years ago. The number of gorillas that get caught has also tremendously reduced.

Dr Jean advises that the only way poaching in the park can cease is by providing people who live on the fringes of these forests with other means to feed their families.

Several means have been devised to give these people alternatives including initiatives like the Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, popularly referred to as Guardians of the Gorillas outside the Volcanoes national park.

The project involves performances of traditional music, dance and crafts for tourists by reformed poachers enabling them to earn a living to cater for their families without doing at the expense of the lives of gorillas.

Nonprofit Organizations have also come out to sponsor projects for the same cause including setting up co-operatives like weaving and potato farming that have employed almost 3,000 locals.
The forest lake has also been preserved by setting up a water pump that provides water to over 4,000 people.

It is fair to say that Sir David’s breathtaking gorilla film soared their profile. It led to the introduction of sensitive eco-tourism, daily monitoring of the gorillas and stepping up veterinary care for the animals. The effort has successfully contributed to the increase in gorilla numbers to more than 1,000 from less than 250 in the past four decades. Although mountain gorillas are still categorized as endangered, they are no longer described as critically endangered due to this impressive rise in their population.

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