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Population of rare gorillas may be increasing in war-torn Congo


Heroic efforts by park guards have helped safeguard isolated population

An isolated population of rare Grauer’s gorillas, living among rebel armies and bands of poachers, has managed to survive in one of the most dangerous regions in Africa, and may even be increasing in numbers, according to a recent census by the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). WCS conservationists say that a band of park guards who have heroically defended the gorillas and their rainforest home in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, have played a key role in safeguarding these endangered primates.
The census, led by WCS project director Innocent Liengola, counted 168 gorillas living in the mountain highlands of Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Most encouragingly, a number of the groups had infants. A census under difficult conditions in 2000 estimated 120 to 130 animals in the same area. Preliminary surveys from other regions in the park and outlying areas have also shown these rare large primates to continue to persist, despite some recent reports that the animals are nearing extinction.

"The fact that this Grauer’s gorilla population may actually be increasing is a tribute to the park guards who have stood their ground against rebel armies and poachers. They are true conservation heroes," said WCS Conservationist Dr. Jeffferson Hall, who conducted the first-ever Grauer’s gorilla census in 1996. "I’m absolutely convinced that if the guards did not remain in Kahuzi Biega, there would be no animals left."

Hall led a WCS survey team in Kahuzi-Biega in 1996 that found a population of 245-270 Grauer’s gorillas living in the same area of the park. Following his survey, the population was hit hard by the onset of Congo’s long civil war, which swept through much of the country.

"When we counted up the numbers of gorillas we knew had been killed during the war, we thought we might find fewer than one hundred left," Liengola said about the current census. "The survey results show us that even sensitive species like gorillas can make a comeback if they are protected and their habitat remains intact. The challenge is to hold this trend."

Ongoing insecurity in the region has made Kahuzi-Biega extremely dangerous for conservation work. As recently as last May, field teams attempting to count gorillas had to flee the area due to rebel fighting. Five years ago a survey team of ten was killed by rebel fighters during attempts to demarcate the park border. For the park guards, the ability to negotiate with rebels and potential poachers have kept the gorillas largely safe. The Grauer’s gorilla (also known as the eastern lowland gorilla) is the least-studied of the four gorilla sub-species. More than three-quarters of the world’s population is believed to be living in and around Kahuzi Biega National Park, though a total population estimate remains unknown. WCS’s program in Kahuzi-Biega is supported by USAID, UNESCO, GTZ, Born Free Foundation, Hallewell Foundation, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Stephen Sautner | EurekAlert!
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