Monitoring Endangered Gorillas in Africa

Daily monitoring of endangered gorillas provides protection, as well as scientific information on their lives and behavior.

Gorilla monitoring involves daily data collection on multiple aspects of the gorillas’ lives: births, deaths, transfers, health, ranging patterns, social behavior, feeding patterns. Dr. Dian Fossey initiated this research in the 1960s in order to learn about the mountain gorillas' social organization and behavior. The studies she started at the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda in 1967 are still ongoing today and are now one of the longest running studies of any animal species anywhere in the world. The information has taught us a significant amount about the social organization and behavior of the gorillas and how these change under different conditions.

By being present on a daily basis with gorilla groups, we have been able to observe important gorilla behaviors such as multiple female transfers, male dispersal, and dominance changes. It also has offered an unusual opportunity to observe changes in social dynamics as group sizes change. The diversity in group makeup has also allowed us to investigate the differences between small and large groups, and between multi-male and single-male groups.

At the Karisoke Research Center, we recognize that the more we know about mountain gorillas - about their lives, behavior and social systems - the better equipped we are to help them survive.  For example, given that so little mountain gorilla habitat remains, the following question is often asked: has this population reached the carrying capacity of the park and if not, how long will it take them to do so? An enormous amount of data is required to answer this question. Estimating carrying capacity requires knowing what foods gorillas eat, how these foods are distributed throughout the habitat and how they vary seasonally as well as how much space a gorilla group requires.  Estimating population growth rates requires a knowledge of the current population size, how many infants a female is likely to have in her lifetime (female reproductive output) and how many of those will survive to adulthood (infant survivorship).  Daily monitoring provides much of  this information and helps to develop conservation strategies for Karisoke™ and our conservation partners in Africa.

Monitoring results: gorilla protection

Daily observation of the gorillas plays an important role in their protection. Trackers and researchers note the presence of snares and other evidence of poachers, and inform our anti-poaching patrols; they note unusual absences of individual gorillas from their group; and if they see that a gorilla is ill or injured they will inform Gorilla Doctors, a Fossey Fund partner. As a result of daily, all-day monitoring as well as anti-poaching and other efforts, the mountain gorillas of the Virungas are the only great ape population to have increased in recent decades, from about 260 in Fossey’s time to 480 individuals at the last census in 2010.

Monitoring gorillas in Congo

After more than a decade working with communities to preserve critical forest habitat in Congo, the Fossey Fund in 2012 established a Grauer's Gorilla Research and Conservation Program, to learn more about these highly endangered gorillas and to begin direct monitoring and protection. The program has established an operations and field research station, and trained Congolese field staff to survey, locate and monitor selected groups of gorillas. We are now studying the Grauer's gorillas' density, feeding ecology and ranging patterns, and are identifying gorilla groups in the area. Some 150 gorillas have been located so far.

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Sigourney Weaver, Honorary Chair

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