Our trackers can be found traversing the rainforests of Volcanoes National Forest 365 days each year, monitoring gorilla families and destroying snares to ensure the gorillas are healthy and safe. It’s difficult work: To reach the gorillas, they hike for miles through unforgiving terrain, in all sorts of weather. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, their already challenging work became more difficult still when, to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to gorillas, our trackers switched to lengthy patrols that kept them in the forest for weeks at a time, far from their own families.
In August 2020, we were grateful to be awarded an IUCN Save Our Species protection grant from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which is co-funded by the European Union. The Save Our Species program aims to improve to the long-term survival of threatened species such as the endangered mountain gorilla. It also focuses on supporting wild habitats and working with the communities that share these habitats. It achieves success by funding and coordinating conservation projects for multiple initiatives across the globe.
We used this generous grant in part to bolster our antipoaching teams, whose important work became even more critical during the pandemic, when human activity in the forest was on the rise due to increased food insecurity.
At the start of the pandemic, we were forced to temporarily halt our antipoaching patrols to better support the gorilla tracking teams, which were under increased pressure due to extended stays in the forest. But the IUCN Save Our Species grant enabled us to hire a new team to focus on finding and dismantling snares. “In the first six months of the pandemic, we were able to conduct only 34 patrols, removing 87 snares,” says Jean Paul Hirwa, the Fossey Fund’s gorilla program manager. “But in the six months after the team was hired, we conducted 125 antipoaching patrols and destroyed 347 snares. For comparison, in 2019, we removed 197 snares.” Hirwa says that despite an increase in poaching and other human activities during the pandemic, no gorillas were caught in snares.
We also used a portion of the grant to help fund improvements in the infrastructure at the field camps where our trackers and other staff members overnight and take their meals during weeks-long periods of patrolling the forests. Early each morning, after a breakfast of sorghum-maize porridge and beignets, trackers set out in search of the gorillas, carrying the supplies they need for the day on their backs. They often hike four or more hours to reach the gorillas in remote parts of the forest. Each night they return to the field camp, where kitchen staff prepares communal meals—typically potatoes or rice with beans and vegetables—to keep them fueled. An average of 80 people, including not only trackers but also research assistants, drivers and custodians, are fed each day in these kitchens, which are located just outside the forest in Bisate and Musumba.
But until IUCN and other donors stepped in, the kitchens were woefully insufficient for the task. The kitchen staff relied on firewood to cook, which is bad for both the environment and the staff who breathe in the smoke during their work shifts.
“Using funds from IUCN, we were able to begin a project to upgrade the kitchen to use propane stoves rather than firewood,” says Felix Ndagijimana, the Fossey Fund’s director of Rwanda programs. “This fuel is more efficient and better for the health and well-being of our employees—and it’s better for the health of the forest as well.”
Ndagijimana says it took two months to renovate the kitchens, which are located in the field camps where trackers live while at work. Kitchen staff can now prepare three meals a day and, he says, “food preparation has tremendously improved as the kitchens became cleaner and cooking became faster. And no more breathing smoke for the cooks!”
“Our post-COVID work protocols, combined with an increased need to combat poaching activity in the forest, have put a strain on our available human and financial resources,” says Dr. Tara Stoinski, the Fossey Fund’s president, CEO and chief scientific officer. “This grant has helped us to increase our capacity to protect the endangered mountain gorillas and to ensure that our field staff remain healthy.”
This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union through IUCN Save Our Species. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and do not necessarily reflect the views of IUCN or the European Union.