Fossey Fund News

May 30, 2014

New Mountain Gorilla Protection Teams Hired

(Left to right) Olivier Hodari, Fred Mandela, Simon-Pierre Ndagijimana, Claude Mahoro, Janvier Bunani, and Thomas HabanabakizeSix new trackers joined the Fossey Fund’s Karisoke Research Center in April to begin protecting gorillas and other wildlife in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Gorilla Program Manager Veronica Vecellio, who manages the gorilla protection teams and oversees the training of the new trackers, explained that “the gorilla groups have increased from nine to ten over the last year, and due to the very high presence of snares in the park, we also want to increase our anti-poaching effort with an extra team.” Hiring six new trackers is a first step in growing the Fossey Fund field teams to achieve these objectives. Once these new staff members have completed their training, the Fossey Fund plans to bring on an additional six trackers to fill in the remaining gaps.

The new trackers were chosen from a pool of 177 applicants who are carefully screened to determine their suitability for the job.Vecellio explains that training a tracker is a huge investment. “The personal skills that make a good tracker are gained over years of practice and experience. This is why, even if we consider a tracker to be trained after six months, we know that for them to perfect their knowledge we will have to wait years. When a tracker leaves or retires, it is an incredible loss that takes many years to recover.” The difficulty of the training is part of why the new trackers are being hired in two groups; having too many inexperienced trackers in the field at one time can be difficult to manage. Vecellio and the other Karisoke staff who select the candidates want to make sure that the new trackers are passionate about gorillas and well-prepared for the challenges of working in the forest. 

When asked why he applied for the position, one of the successful candidates, Claude Mahoro, said: “I was interested in applying for the job because I wanted to be among the people contributing to saving mountain gorillas. I knew that gorillas are among the endangered species and particularly, being aware of their importance to my country, I wished to give my contribution to protecting them. Now I have that opportunity with Karisoke.”

Mahoro and his five colleagues are now undergoing an intensive training period that usually lasts between three and six months, during which they will learn about data collection, rules and regulations in the park, safety, anti-poaching activities, gorilla identification, and gorilla behavior. The men will rotate through all of the ten gorilla family groups, learning to identify each of the 120 inidviduals monitored by the Fossey Fund using the unique pattern of wrinkles on their noses. They will also learn how to recognize gorilla tracks in the vegetation and to estimate how old the tracks are, the number of gorillas that used the path, and what direction they were moving in. In addition to learning how to collect the daily data about gorilla behavior, health, and demography, they will also need to learn how to write reports about special events like interactions and illegal activities they may encounter. Moreover, they must complete paramilitary training in order to carry a weapon in the forest for self-defense. 

The trackers who are chosen for anti-poaching patrols will learn how to navigate the forest using a dense network of paths, how to recognize all kinds of animal signs from gorillas to bushbucks to duikers, and also how to spot illegal activities and follow the trails of poachers and other humans visiting the park illegally. Finally, they will learn how to report on these illegal activities and record information about them, such as the GPS location.

In just two months, the new trackers are making great progress  Janvier Bunani says, “So far, I have learned different things related to gorilla monitoring. I know how to identify every single gorilla by observing their noseprints, how to collect ranging and health data, and I know many gorilla food plants.”

Fred Mandela is enjoying the work too. He says, “I am very happy to be able to see the gorillas every day. They are always interesting to observe.”

We are very happy to welcome these six men: Claude Mahoro, Janvier Bunani, Fred Mandela, Simon Pierre Ndagijimana, Olivier Hodari, and Thomas Habanabakize, to the Fossey Fund team. With their help, we will be able to strengthen the vital infrastructure required to protect mountain gorillas and their habitat. 

We are grateful to an Anonymous Foundation, The Milton and Tamar Maltz Family Foundation, Oracle, Orange County Community Foundation, Turner Foundation, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and Gorilla Council members, as well as our sponsors, members and donors for their generous support of our protection and monitoring programs both in Rwanda and in Congo.  We could not continue our work without the contributions from those who understand the importance of a daily presence in the forest to the survival of gorillas.

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