Protecting Grauer's Gorillas in Congo
Beginning in 2000, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International helped local communities establish community-based conservation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in a unique eco-region of some 26,000 square miles. A network of community-based nature reserves now links two national parks in the area to form a wildlife corridor that encompasses nearly the entire range of the endangered Grauer's gorilla (formerly known as the eastern lowland gorilla). This area is also home to many other rare, important species, such as forest elephant, okapi, and eastern chimpanzee, and has been identified as one of the most important forest blocks in the Congo Basin.
Due to years of political instability, agricultural expansion, mining, poor economic conditions and other factors, conservation in the area has become critical and the Fossey Fund has committed to helping provide long-term solutions. In collaboration with the reserves, the Fossey Fund now operates a program modeled after the Karisoke Research Center, to directly monitor and study Grauer's gorillas.
Community-based nature reserves
Based on traditional African land ownership and governance, local chiefs and villages create nature reserves that are managed and maintained by local communities. These community reserves work together through a federation called UGADEC (Union des Associations de Conservation des Gorilles pour le Développement Communautaire à l'Est de la République Démocratique du Congo). Their goal is to build community-managed reserves while at the same time developing their local economies in well-defined zones outside the reserves.
A new Grauer's gorilla initiative
Unlike mountain gorillas, which have been studied in Rwanda at our Karisoke Research Center for more than four decades, little is known about Grauer’s gorillas because there are few habituated groups that researchers can observe. Protection has been limited by civil unrest and other factors, and Grauer's gorillas are considered highly endangered. It is believed that their numbers have dropped significantly, although an accurate count has not been possible.
The Fossey Fund has been building a Grauer’s Gorilla Research and Conservation Program in DRC that will allow us not only to assess the numbers and stability of the current population in the region, but also to study and protect them. This program operates mainly in UGADEC member territory and many of the trackers and team leaders we employ are drawn from the reserves.
The program operates a research base deep in the forest in Biruwe, in the Walikale area, staffed by Congolese trackers and team leaders and managed by the Fund. From the camp, the field staff patrols the surrounding forest, setting up temporary campsites in order to cover greater distances over several days. During 2012, they discovered nest sites, dung, and food remains indicating the presence of Grauer’s gorillas. In fact, they believe they may have found a group of as many as 35 gorillas in one area. In 2013, the team continued their surveys, studying the gorillas' density, feeding ecology and ranging patterns, and the impact of mining activities, and identifying gorilla groups.
Community reserve landowners were closely involved and gave their commitment and support to these efforts. The program works in conjunction with the communities to encourage conservation and cooperation with law enforcement's anti-poaching activities.