The census, carried out in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, found over 400 gorillas living in 36 distinct social groups. This brings the total world population of mountain gorillas to 880, an increase of over 10% since 2010.
According to David Greer, WWF’s African Great Apes Programme Manager, “Mountain gorillas are the only great ape experiencing a population increase. This is largely due to intensive conservation efforts and successful community engagement.”
Mountain gorilla conservation is now balanced against the needs of local people, for example by tackling illegal firewood collection in gorilla habitat by providing communities with alternative energy sources.
“Mountain gorillas have only survived because of conservation. Protected areas are better managed and resourced than they have ever been, and our work is a lot more cross-cutting to address threats – we don’t just work with the animals in the national parks, but also with the people,” said Drew McVey, Species Programme Manager at WWF.
The mountain gorilla, Gorilla beringei beringei, is a Critically Endangered subspecies of the eastern gorilla, the largest of the living apes. In addition to the population at Bwindi, a second mountain gorilla population is found in the Virunga Massif, a range of extinct volcanoes that spans the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.
The Virunga population has also increased in the last decade, but the two populations do not interbreed and both remain under threat from deforestation, disease, regional conflict, poaching, and snares set for other animals. There is also concern that proposed oil exploration in the Virunga National Park could bring new problems for gorillas and other wildlife in an area already beset by conflict.
“More people in Virunga would likely lead to an increase in deforestation, illegal hunting and more snares in the forest,” said Greer. “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.”
Although the increase in gorilla numbers in recent decades is encouraging, experts say that it should not be taken as a sign that the fight to save the species has been won.
“Gorilla populations are incredibly fragile and sensitive to environmental change. There are only two populations, so disease could easily wipe out an entire population,” said McVey. He added that, “Mountain gorillas are only found in protected areas, and outside these areas there are more than 600 people per square kilometre, so there is immense pressure to secure their habitat and pay their way.”
Many mountain gorilla groups have become accustomed to humans and are a major draw for tourists. Revenue from tourism is in turn helping to fund the protection of parks and is being reinvested into local communities.
“The amount of revenue and jobs that gorillas generate is so important for these areas that are so desperately poor,” McVey said. “People really see gorillas as important for the national and local economies, and a portion of this goes back to conservation efforts and the local community.”
Read more on this story at WWF – Mountain gorilla population grows and The Guardian – Mountain gorilla numbers rise by 10%.
Find out more about gorilla conservation at the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.
Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author