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Celebrating gorilla trackers and World Ranger Day

The success of gorilla conservation and many other types of wildlife protection is dependent on the commitment and courage of the men and women who serve on the frontlines, monitoring the world’s critical wildlife, forests and other lands.

At the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, we are privileged to have teams of gorilla trackers, helping to save the endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda and the critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These dedicated individuals are in the forest every day, protecting the gorillas while also collecting information that is used by our researchers and scientists to conserve, monitor and learn about these incredible animals.

Tracker looking into the distance

Gorilla tracking methods

In Rwanda, the mountain gorillas range within several hours hike from the edge of Volcanoes National Park’s, allowing trackers to closely follow and monitor them on a daily basis. These gorillas are habituated to the presence of human observers, so our trackers are able to observe their behaviors and health status, while collecting valuable information and ensuring their protection.

However, the Grauer’s gorillas we protect in DR Congo live deep within the forest, in an area that is 10 times the size of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Our trackers must camp for weeks at a time in the forest, since the gorillas can be several days’ walk from our base there.

In addition, the Grauer’s gorillas are not habituated to the presence of humans, so instead of close observation, our trackers carefully follow the gorilla groups’ trails, maintaining a one-day distance. By relying on techniques such as analyzing nest sites, food remains, footprints and other methods, they can still gather vital information about the gorillas’ presence, numbers, travel patterns, diets and more.

Beyond gorillas

In addition to gorilla trackers, in both Rwanda and DR Congo we also have biodiversity trackers, who focus on monitoring other animals and plants in the forest, from golden monkeys to birds to amphibians and more. All of these species are important indicators of the overall health of the gorillas’ forest home. And, importantly, we also have trackers in the forests who are dedicated to removing snares and other dangers, and to reporting prohibited human activities. In Congo, the area we protect is so large that we also support community-led patrols to help cover the area. All of these rangers are also critical to protecting the forests as well as the gorillas.

The challenges of tracking

In the forests of Rwanda, our trackers must be ready for unpredictable weather conditions such as heavy rain and cold temperatures. They must be fit enough for steep terrain and high altitudes, as well potential encounters with other wildlife. 

Gatete Ildephonse, who has been a Fossey Fund tracker for 21 years, says that for him, the most difficult time is when the mountain gorillas have traveled a long distance in the forest, requiring the team to hike uphill for many hours. 

“Considering the nature of Volcanoes National Park, there are many steep areas, making it difficult to trek, especially if the gorillas are far away. It is exhausting and you may do this for many days in a row,” he says.

In Congo, our trackers face even greater challenges. In addition to being away from their families for weeks while camping in the forest, the logistical challenges are significant. For example, they have to carry all their food and materials for their time in the forest, move through challenging terrain, cross rivers and keep up with the gorilla groups movements.

 “Staying in the forest for two weeks is challenging, as well as trying to stay in communication with our base station,” says Baraka Bunimeno, one of our trackers in Congo since 2017. Also, if anyone is injured or if they encounter dangerous situations, they are a long way from getting help.

Words of inspiration

Despite the challenges, the Fossey Fund’s gorilla trackers in Rwanda and Congo demonstrate an exemplary level of dedication and commitment to their work. Some have been tracking gorillas for more than two decades and are now inspiring younger generations to do the same. 

“Each day, as we walk through this park, we expect some challenges. But witnessing the beauty of the mountain gorillas and knowing that our work directly contributes to their survival is incredibly rewarding,” says Felicien Kanyarugano, a Fossey Fund tracker in Rwanda for more than 25 years.

“Our commitment to gorilla conservation gives us the courage to take on our job in the forest,” says Maliasi Kabukwasi, who has been a Fossey Fund tracker in Congo for 10 years. “We walk for so many hours, camping in the forest, with one goal in mind – to protect these gorillas.”

“Everyone’s effort is needed to ensure their survival,” says Aline Dufitumukiza, one of our new female trackers in Rwanda. “It is our duty to protect and conserve these magnificent creatures for future generations. By working together, we can make a significant difference in their survival.”

From all of us at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and in honor of World Ranger day, we send our deepest gratitude to all the rangers protecting wildlife around the world, and to the families of those who have lost their lives while doing this critically important work.