Saving Endangered Gorillas through Anti-Poaching
Anti-poaching teams, part of the “active conservation” begun by Dian Fossey, continue to protect and save gorillas today in Rwanda and the Congo.
Anti-poaching in Rwanda
Protection of the gorillas from poaching is a primary focus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and, in particular, the Karisoke™ Research Center. Protection activities at Karisoke™ consist of anti-poaching patrols in the forest and a daily, dawn-to-dusk human presence with all of the approximately 120 gorillas we monitor.
Karisoke’s anti-poaching teams are "active conservationists" in the field, sweeping what is known as the Karisoke™ sector of the Volcanoes National Park to record the presence and location of illegal activities, such as wood cutting, water collecting or cattle grazing. They also remove snares from the forest, most of which are set for antelopes and other small game but can cause serious injury or death to the gorillas. All data on snares and other illegal activities are shared with the Rwanda park authorities (a component of the Rwandan Development Board/RDB) to help guide park management decisions. A mobile anti-poaching unit, which includes Karisoke's anti-poaching teams and staff from RDB, provides added protection for mountain gorillas living deep in the forest. Team members set up campsites from which they jointly patrol Volcanoes National Park for one week at a time.
The location of the camp and team members are kept secret and changed weekly, enabling them to catch poachers off guard. Karisoke™ staff also conduct cross-border patrols with local teams from the Ugandan and Congolese sectors of the gorillas’ habitat.
One important effort includes community members, former poachers and the military joining Karisoke's and RDB's anti-poaching teams during "shock" patrols. This collaboration not only allows the community members to appreciate the work done to protect the forest, but also allows for wider patrol coverage.
Karisoke's patrol and trackers' teams remove nearly 1,000 snares per year, and a total of nearly 2,000 snares are removed from the forest each year by all the patrols.
In addition to the anti-poaching patrols, each group of gorillas the Fossey Fund monitors has a dedicated team that remains with the group from dawn to dusk, seven days per week, 365 days per year. These teams have two functions: to collect data on the gorillas and to protect them from poachers. Following poaching attacks in 2002, the Karisoke™ Research Center increased the amount of time our tracking teams are with the gorillas from half to full days. This protection continues today; trackers spend roughly four hours in the group collecting data and then remain in close proximity to, but out of sight from, the group for the remainder of the day to deter possible poaching attempts.
The anti-poaching and protection teams are extremely dedicated to safeguarding the gorillas. When insecurity in the area forced the suspension of all tourist visits to Volcanoes National Park in 1997 and 1998, the trackers arranged for military escorts to accompany them in the park so they could monitor the gorilla groups that had been studied for three decades. During this period, many of the Karisoke™ staff members were robbed and their homes were looted for raingear, boots and other equipment by rebels hiding in the forest. To combat these and other risks, the men underwent rigorous paramilitary training provided by the Rwandan army. Today, they continue to risk their lives to protect the mountain gorillas. Following an attack by an armed group on one of the tracker camps in 2012, during which one tracker was killed, all trackers and patrol members again received paramilitary training.
Anti-poaching in the Congo
The extensive experience of the Karisoke™ anti-poaching and protection teams has been exported to other sites in the region. Karisoke™ staff have trained members of the national parks service in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and rangers from the community-based Tayna Gorilla Reserve who protect Grauer’s (eastern lowland) gorilla in their area. Such capacity building for African conservationists is an important part of the Fossey Fund’s mission.
Unlike mountain gorillas, there are few habituated groups of Grauer's gorillas, and they are spread out in vast forests of eastern DRC. These critically endangered and lesser-known gorillas have received little protection due to civil unrest and other factors, and it is believed that their numbers have been dropping significantly, though an accurate count has not yet been possible. The Fossey Fund has set up various ways to learn more about these gorillas and find the best ways to protect them, including working with community-based reserves and national parks, establishing a rehabilitation center for young gorillas rescued from poachers, assisting with rescue efforts, and setting up a program to begin direct monitoring and protection.
The Fossey Fund's Grauer's Gorilla Research and Conservation program employs a field team of Congolese trackers and team leaders who operate from a base deep in the forest, in one of the community-based reserves. They are studying the gorillas' density, feeding ecology and ranging patterns, and are working with local landowners and members of the nearby villages to encourage conservation and cooperation with anti-poaching activities.