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Mountain gorillas need support network for survival, conservationist says

Mountain gorillas survive in two pockets of African rain forest and are shared by three countries that have experienced much turmoil: Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. That the gorillas have been able to find relative sanctuary above the fray of the human settlements around them is thanks in no small part to the vision and dedication of several people and...

Mountain gorillas survive in two pockets of African rain forest and are shared by three countries that have experienced much turmoil: Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

That the gorillas have been able to find relative sanctuary above the fray of the human settlements around them is thanks in no small part to the vision and dedication of several people and organizations devoted to the wellbeing of the endangered primates.

One such person is Eugene Rutagarama.


Photo of Eugene Rutagarama and mountain gorilla by J. Kemsey, IGCP

The recipient of both the Jean Paul Getty Prize and the 2001 Goldman Environmental Prize in recognition for his conservation work, Rutagarama is the first African director of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), a coalition formed in 1991 by three partners: African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), Fauna & Flora International (FFI), and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).


The mission of the IGCP is to empower the people of Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Uganda to jointly manage a network of transboundary protected areas “that contributes significantly to sustainable development and protects the endangered mountain gorillas and their habitat.”

The partnership also incorporates the respective protected-area authorities of the three countries in which IGCP works: the Rwanda Development Board/Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN), the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN).

From his office in Kigali, Rwanda, Rutagarama discussed in a telephone interview the successes and challenges in mountain gorilla conservation, and the role played by his organization, particularly in the context of Year of the Gorilla 2009..

NatGeo News Watch interview: Eugene Rutagarama >>


“We work closely with the governments of the DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda, conserving mountain gorillas in their habitats,” Rutagarama said. “One of our key achievements has been to bring the three countries to work together in harmony to conserve habitat of the gorillas.

“The result has been that the three countries collaborated to produce a transboundary strategic plan and a secretariat to manage daily the relationship between the countries.

“After 17 years of facilitation of this transboundary collaboration, the IGCP now plays a role of advisor to the newly created secretariat, together with other conservation work across the region.”

Photo by J. Kemsey, IGCP

IGCP’s efforts have helped stabilize and increase the population of mountain gorillas from 650 or so two decades ago to about 700 today, mostly through programs to increase awareness of the communities adjacent to the gorilla habitat and by supporting law enforcement carried out by protected-area authorities, Rutagarama added.

“The program also facilitates enhancement of the communities’ livelihood, for example by helping move most beekeeping to outside the conservation areas where they were a recurrent threat to the park due to traditional honey-harvesting with fire,” Rutagarama said. “IGCP helped them acquire modern beehives which enabled them to get more and better honey, and trained them in marketing their honey products.”

Additional support for local inhabitants has been the construction of community lodges for tourist accommodation. The rare mountain gorillas have a high international profile, thanks in part to the extensive focus on them over decades by the media, National Geographic Television and National Geographic magazine among them.

In this video, watch how local communities in Uganda benefit from mountain gorilla tourism:

National Geographic video

Tourists have been willing to pay handsomely for guided visits to the gorillas in their mountain retreats. (Mountain gorillas do not survive in captivity, so this is this is the only way to see them.)


Photo of young mountain gorilla by J P Moreiras, Fauna & Flora International

In Rwanda and Uganda there has also been a focus on high-end accommodation to generally substantially increase the economic yield of gorilla tourism to the community.

“This has led to the broadening constituency support for mountain gorillas,” Rutagarama said.

An example of how this support can pay off was was the fire in the national park in Rwanda in July this year, Rutagarama said.. “When the fire broke out, we saw four thousand people from Rwanda, including officials and military personnel, instantly [rally] to put out the fire.

“With just one phone call from the park management, the government of Uganda allowed thousands of people [from Rwanda] to help put out the fire that had spread from Rwanda to the Uganda side of the park.

“We have raised awareness [of the gorilla conservation] of the decision-makers in the three countries.”

Why Year of the Gorilla 2009?

“This year was declared the Year of the Gorilla by the United Nations to raise awareness and help the park authorities in the gorilla-range countries to enhance the conservation status of this great ape,” Rutagarama said.

“In Rwanda, the celebration of the Year of the Gorilla was through the gorilla naming ceremony, which was highly covered by international media in June. IGCP helped organize an international conference on gorilla conservation in Rwanda during the week of gorilla naming.

“In Uganda, the Uganda Wildlife Authority is launching a new habituated group for tourism and unveiling a wider friend-a-gorilla conservation campaign during the week of September 21. IGCP is playing a key role in organizing this event.



Friend a Gorilla on Facebook
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“The Year of the Gorilla has helped local communities get resources to increase and help their conservation efforts.

“And it has helped raise awareness of the gorillas within the international community. We still need financial resources to enhance the livelihood of people around the parks, and to help with monitoring and research. The Year of the Gorilla helps with all of that.”

The international community has heard a lot of horror stories coming out of the region about genocide, civil wars, warlords, militias. How are the mountain gorillas faring in the three countries?

mountain gorilla range map.jpg

The world’s remaining mountain gorillas live within four national parks, located in three countries, Rutagarama explained.

“There are two blocs of forest. The first forest is the Virungas, which includes Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (Uganda), Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda), and Virunga National Park (Democratic Republic of Congo). There are about 380 gorillas in the Virungas, and they roam from one country to another.

“The second group is in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, where there are 340 gorillas.

“The two groups are 40 kilometers [25 miles] apart and do not communicate with one another.

mountain gorilla facts.jpg

There has been a lot of effort on the part of the three countries and the gorilla populations have been stable and even increased, in spite of the regional conflict,” Rutagarama said.

Human diseases and encroachment

But the remaining threats to the gorillas are potential infection of human diseases and encroachment of human development, he added.

“There is intense competition for resources as the local human population is very poor in a very populous region in all three countries. If the livelihood does not improve countrywide in all three range countries, there will always be potential threats to the parks.

“We can’t deny the development of resources for the local people. Because we are afraid that if the people do not have a decent livelihood they will look to the parks to survive, we have to contribute to enhancing the community livelihood and we must keep talking to the governments of the three territories about this.”

Bwindi is the only gorilla population that is entirely inside one country, Uganda.

The Virungas population is shared by three countries so the parameters of development are not the parameters of only one country, Rutagarama said. “That makes the situation more complex, but the three governments do understand that they need to work together to protect the gorillas.”

There was a lot of publicity a year or so ago about the execution of mountain gorillas. (The National Geographic Television documentary “Explorer: Gorilla Murders” won an Emmy for Oustanding Investigative Journalism.) Has that situation been resolved? 

“We know there have been some murders of gorillas, but our impression is that due to a lot of efforts of partners on the ground they are not doing too badly in Virunga,” Rutagarama said.

How much of a problem is wildlife trafficking? Are people poaching gorillas for meat or the pet trade?

“Mountain gorillas are less threatened than lowland gorillas by the wildlife trade,” Rutagarama said. “The threats to lowland gorillas are very high. They  have been completely decimated in some parts by militias and local communities that consume gorilla meat. But there has been no equivalent consumption of mountain gorillas.

“Many times people have been caught trafficking, but only a few cases have involved mountain gorillas. Mountain gorillas do not survive in captivity, so they are not often taken alive.”


Photo of silverback gorilla by J P Moreiras, Fauna & Flora International 

Ultimately, the survival of mountain gorillas will depend on whether or not they have cultural and economic value to the people who live alongside them. That would include developing a vibrant tourist industry. But how safe is it really for tourists to visit the gorillas? Are the tourists coming?

“Gorilla tourism is booming in Rwanda and Uganda, where gorilla permits are all fully booked, especially during these months of high seasons, from June to September,” Rutagarama said. “Gorilla tourism has resumed also in the DRC after many years of insecurity, when it was stopped.

“Security for tourists is good, in fact, for visiting the gorillas in all three countries.”

Is there any special message in the Year of the Gorilla 2009 from the director of the  International Gorilla Conservation Programme?

“I would like to stress that the mountain gorilla is doing well, thanks to the efforts of the three governments and the general public living around them,” Rutagarama said.

“The mountain gorilla has recovered from its decline, but it is still vulnerable to threats, including potential disease and encroachments, some poaching, and trafficking.

“We need to keep working at getting more friends for the gorillas to ensure their survival, and that includes all our friends in the international community.”

“We need to keep working at getting more friends for the gorillas to ensure their survival, and that includes all our friends in the international community.”


Photo of Eugene Rutagarama and mountain gorilla by J. Kemsey, IGCP

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