The number of critically endangered mountain gorillas is on the rise following conservation efforts in the Transboundary Virunga Massif, one of the two remaining areas where the great ape is still found.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), latest survey results show that mountain gorilla numbers increased to 604 from an estimated 480 in 2010, including 41 social groups, along with 14 solitary males in the Transboundary area.
It brings the global wild population of mountain gorillas to an estimated 1,004 when combined with published figures from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (where the rest of the sub-species is found) and makes it the only great ape in the world that is considered to be increasing in population.
The findings are the result of intensive surveying coordinated by the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration and supported by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP –a coalition programme of Fauna and Flora International and WWF) along with other partners.
Despite the good news, the survey found that direct threats from wire or rope snares persist.
During the survey, the teams found and destroyed more than 380 snares, which were set for antelope, but can also kill or harm gorillas.
One of the snares discovered by the teams contained a dead mountain gorilla. There are also new threats looming large on the horizon, including climate change, infrastructure development and the ever-present spectre of disease, which has the potential to devastate the remaining populations.
Ongoing conflict and civil unrest in the region also present an ongoing risk, impacting people and wildlife. A number of rangers have been killed in recent weeks in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park.
Margaret Kinnaird, Wildlife Practice leader, WWF, said: “This is fabulous news for mountain gorillas and shows what we can do for wildlife when NGOs, governments and their communities work together.
“However, the high number of snares encountered and other numerous threats they face including climate change indicate that the battle is far from being won.
“The three gorilla range countries and their partners must continue to work together to safeguard the Virunga Massif – not only for the protection of these incredible creatures, but also for the welfare of the local people with whom they share the landscape. The mountain gorilla story can be a model for how to restore and maintain our earth’s precious biodiversity.”
Alison Mollon, director of Operations for Africa at Fauna and Flora International (FFI), said:
“Since FFI first began working to protect mountain gorillas in the 1970s, we have seen a remarkable transformation in the fortunes of this great ape, which at that time was on the very precipice of extinction.
“This turnaround is thanks to the extraordinary efforts of all those, who have persisted through immense challenges – sometimes even risking their own lives – to protect these great apes.
“Today, mountain gorilla numbers are looking much healthier, but this is no time for complacency. We need to remain extremely vigilant, particularly in light of the ever-present and growing threat posed by the transmission of human-borne diseases that are relatively innocuous for us, but potentially fatal to other primates.”
The census involved 12 teams – comprising people from more than 10 institutions – which covered over 2,000km of difficult, forested terrain systematically searching the mountain gorilla habitat for signs of the animals, recording nest sites and collecting faeces samples for genetic analysis. The teams also looked for evidence of threats to gorillas and other wildlife.
Reacting to the news, Fauna and Flora International vice-president and WWF-UK ambassador, Sir David Attenborough said: “When I first visited the mountain gorillas in 1979, the situation was dire; the number of these remarkable animals was dreadfully small.
“It is incredibly heartening therefore to see how the efforts of so many different groups – communities, governments, NGOs – have paid off.
“The threats to mountain gorillas haven’t disappeared entirely, of course, so now the challenge must be to ensure that these achievements are sustained long into the future.”
The survey results underscore the need for continued attention and action by government agencies, protected area staff, tourism operators, tourists and communities alike, to ward off these threats and keep mountain gorillas safe in the long term.