The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund’s Work in Congo
In addition to helping the Democratic Republic of Congo’s park and wildlife authority (ICCN) protect mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, we have helped local communities establish nature reserves that protect Grauer's gorillas; established a facility to rehabilitate young Grauer's gorillas rescued from poachers; and launched the Fossey Fund's own Grauer's gorilla monitoring and research project, in a vast landscape to the west of Virunga National Park.
The Virunga Mountains
Mountain gorillas inhabit the forested slopes of the Virunga volcanic mountain chain that straddles the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in central Africa’s Albertine Rift. (A related but separate population of mountain gorillas inhabits Bwindi National Park in Uganda.)
Protecting Grauer's gorillas in Congo
West of the Viriungas, we work with the Union of Associations for Gorilla Conservation and Community Development (UGADEC), a network of community-based reserves linking two national parks, in a vast area that is home to nearly the entire range of the Grauer’s (eastern lowland) gorilla and to many other rare, important species such as the forest elephant, okapi, and eastern chimpanzee. The Fund has helped the community reserves achieve recognition from the Congo government so they can have the same legal status as the parks while retaining their management role.
The Grauer’s gorillas are estimated to number 5,000 or perhaps even fewer individuals, though an accurate count has not been possible. Some new populations have been identified recently, though not enough to change their endangered status. They live at a variety of altitudes, not only in lowlands, but not as high up as the mountain gorillas. 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.
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. The Fossey Fund has been building a Grauer’s Gorilla Research and Conservation Program in the Congo 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 Fossey Fund operates a base camp in Biruwe, in a community-based reserve in the Walikale area, staffed by Congolese trackers and team leaders and managed by the Fund. Field staff patrol 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.
Caring for rescued gorillas
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund cares for Grauer’s gorillas rescued from poachers and prepares them to return to the wild, at the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) center, on a site donated by the Tayna Center for Conservation Biology (TCCB), next to the Tayna Nature Reserve. GRACE is operated by a small consortium, including the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, The Disney Company, the Congolese national park service (ICCN) and TCCB.