When the COVID-19 pandemic first began to spread in March, the Fossey Fund’s protection work in and around Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park became both more complicated and more costly. Our teams of trackers had to ensure that they didn’t risk infecting the mountain gorillas or each other, leading us to establish expanded health protocols. Gorillas share more than 98% of our DNA, so they are susceptible to the same viruses we are, and molecular analysis has shown that they have the genetically identical receptor system for COVID-19.
Our tracker teams—who were deemed “essential workers” by the Rwandan government—immediately shifted to a schedule of rotations on duty at remote camps adjacent to the forest; these long stints kept both them and the gorillas they protect safe, but also led to extensive time away from their families and additional costs as we worked to supply them for these extended trips.
At the same time, the loss of tourist income in Rwanda, combined with the necessary quarantine restrictions that kept Rwandan workers and our own staff home from their jobs, directly affected the communities near the park, making our food security and livelihood programs more vital to the people with whom we work, while at the same time making our programs more difficult to administer.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, in August 2020, we were grateful to be awarded a IUCN Save Our Species protection grant from the International Union for Conservation of Nature to help cover the increased costs and work that the pandemic caused. The IUCN Save Our Species program , co-funded by the European Union, aims to build capacity in civil society organizations such as ours and to contribute to the long-term survival of threatened species, such as the endangered mountain gorilla, and their habitats.
With this grant, we were able to expand our team in the forest protecting gorillas and other wildlife by removing snares. Not only did this help the gorillas, but it allowed us to offer employment to members of the local community, contributing to the local economy and reducing the number of people who would need to enter the forest in search of food.
During the month of September, our staff destroyed a record 122 snares—more than five snares each day—that might otherwise have injured or killed gorillas or other forest animals. To put these numbers in perspective, throughout all of 2019, our teams destroyed 197 snares. We believe the increased number of snares we are currently finding is related to food insecurity in nearby human communities, which leads to increased poaching—gorillas themselves are not targeted by the poachers, but they can be ensnared nonetheless.
“Our post-COVID work protocols, while critical to the safety of our team members, 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 IUCN grant has helped us to increase our capacity to protect the endangered mountain gorillas and assist the human communities that live near the park.”
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.