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Saving gorillas and helping people in Congo

Our Rwanda-based communication assistant Cedric Ujeneza just traveled to our remote field site in the Democratic Republic of the Congo the Nkuba Conservation Area (NCA) for the first time. This story is the first in a series by Cedric on what he observed about our work protecting gorillas and other wildlife and addressing the basic needs of the surrounding communities.

Cedric Ujeneza in Rwanda, where the mountain gorillas are habituated to human observers.

Tracking gorillas in remote forests

The Fossey Fund has a team of more than 100 trackers who work in the remote forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo), where critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas live. These trackers spend several weeks at a time deep in the forests, protecting and studying gorilla groups from behind, at a one-day distance, since these gorillas are not habituated to the presence of humans.

The Grauer’s gorilla population has declined dramatically in recent decades, primarily due to a lack of formal protection. That is why since 2012, the Fossey Fund has been working with local communities to create and protect an area we named the Nkuba Conservation Area (NCA). The NCA now covers more than 2,400 square kilometers, is home to hundreds of gorillas and chimpanzees and stores an estimated quarter billion tons of carbon.

Tracking in this area is especially difficult, as the gorillas are located a long way from our base camp at the edge of the NCA and they must hike for days through dense, humid forest, traversing rivers and streams, facing severe rainy seasons and other challenges.

Interview with tracker Bokongo: The team’s “compass”

Bokongo Akilimari has been a gorilla tracker with the Fossey Fund in Congo since 2016. Before that, he was a farmer but also hunted in the forest for food, which included red river hogs, buffaloes and several types of antelopes. This background is now helpful in his gorilla tracking, because it means that he knows and understands the forest well, so is able to guide our tracking team in many ways.

Bokongo is an expert at finding the signs of gorillas that we use to monitor them, such as their night nests and the plants they have been eating. But he is also able to identify the signs of other animals, the traces of various illegal human activities, and other useful information.

Of course there are extreme physical challenges to tracking in this area too. “One of the primary challenges tracking the gorillas is their exceedingly high level of mobility,” says Bokongo.

“They move so fast and walk such long distances. And during the rainy season, their traces can be obscured or completely washed away, making it more difficult to determine their whereabouts. So my favorite time is when it’s dry.”

Bokongo says he is grateful that the Fossey Fund has come to protect this forest. “We – the community around the forest – know its value and now we can stop harming the animals that live there and instead take the lead in protecting them. I really enjoy having a job where I can contribute to a cause and not have to hunt.

“I am also proud that since I got this job, my children have been able to study in school and receive medical care, supported by the Fossey Fund. These are such valuable things.”

Stay tuned for another story on our Congo staff soon.