How We Study Gorillas

Dr. Dian Fossey began an historic long-term gorilla study that the Fossey Fund has continued and expanded.  The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International conducts scientific research on gorillas and their ecosystems in a number of different ways. Although we are best known for our work with mountain gorillas, the Fund studies both subspecies of eastern gorillas -- mountain gorillas, found in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda, and Grauer's (eastern lowland) gorillas, which live exclusively in the eastern DRC. The goal of our research with both subspecies is the same: to learn more about their basic biology and how to best conserve them.

Mountain gorilla research

Mountain gorillas have been studied for nearly 50 years and many are now habituated to human presence.  As a result, we are able to follow known individuals on a daily basis, recording their behavior in extreme detail.

Silverback VubaEach morning, our trackers locate their assigned gorilla group by going to their night nest location and then following the trail of crushed vegetation they left behind as they started moving.  After finding the group and recording its location via a global positioning system (GPS), the trackers look for each individual in the group and record information on general appearance and health and any change in group composition due to births, deaths, immigration or emigration, in order to track the population dynamics. In addition, researchers collect detailed information on behavior for our long-term gorilla research database and specific studies. Individual gorillas are identified through their noseprints. 

Because noseprints can change over the course of an individual’s lifetime, we update our noseprint file each year for each of the approximately 120 gorillas we monitor.

 

Silverback Ugutsinda in 2006 Ugutsinda in 2007

 

Grauer's gorilla research

Unlike the mountain gorillas, most of the Grauer’s gorilla populations we work with have not been studied by humans, except for some at Kahuzi-Biega National Park. After years of working with community nature reserves in Congo, in 2012, the Fossey Fund established a newly focused Grauer’s Gorilla Conservation Program to begin study and protection of this critically endangered species, based on our successful model at the Karisoke Research Center. We set up a permanent research and conservation field station in the village of Nkuba, at the edge of a pristine forest and began an intensive survey in the area, locating 14 groups of Grauer’s gorillas and other important wildlife. This now allows for regular tracking and protection of their habitat, as well as study of critical aspects of their lives, such as diets, ranging patterns, and social systems. We are also monitoring other remote sectors using a network of camera "traps."

The Fossey Fund also collaborates with Congolese wildlife authorities (ICCN) to observe the only habituated group of Grauer’s gorillas, located in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. This group was originally habituated for tourism and is monitored and protected by ICCN staff.  We are working with them to collect data using the same protocols we follow at the Karisoke Research Center. This will enable direct comparisons between the two populations. Since Grauer’s gorillas are the most understudied of the four gorilla subspecies, this work is critical to building the information we need to successfully conserve them.


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