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Why we study “biodiversity” in gorilla habitat

March 3, 2016

Why we study “biodiversity” in gorilla habitat

Gorillas live in complex habitats that include many other important species, and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund has been actively monitoring and studying this "biodiversity" for almost 15 years. Understanding more about important animals and plants in these forests is crucial to the survival of gorillas and for effective conservation overall. And it helps local communities in several ways.

A golden monkeyThe Fossey Fund’s biodiversity program is led by Deogratias Tuyisingize, who came to the Fossey Fund in 2004 as a biology student from the National University of Rwanda. In 2006, Tuyisingize was hired as a research assistant for the Fossey Fund’s biodiversity program at our Karisoke Research Center, later earned a master’s degree in conservation biology, and then was appointed to his current position. He is currently planning to pursue a Ph.D., program, focusing his research on the endangered golden monkey, which has become an important part of the Fossey Fund’s biodiversity work.

“Ever since I came to Karisoke, my interests have been to focus on the-less studied or even non-studied species, especially the threatened ones, like golden monkey, as well as keystone species like bamboo, and indicator species, such as birds and amphibians,” says Tuyisingize.

Studying endangered golden monkeys

Golden monkeys are a subspecies of blue monkey and are found only in the center of the Albertine Rift. There are only two populations of them left, one of which is in the Virunga mountains, also home to the mountain gorillas. Due to habitat loss and illegal activities in the forest, suitable habitat for these monkeys has been greatly reduced in recent decades and their population appears to be declining. Tuyisingize’s doctoral research will be the first comprehensive study of the golden monkey’s conservation status, comparing the two remaining populations and how well they have adapted to various environmental pressures.

Studying golden monkeys required habituation of some of their groups, in order to use the same techniques used for studying gorillas, says Tuyisingize. Due to these habituation efforts, the golden monkey is now the second most-popular tourist attraction in the park (next to gorilla visits, of course), says Tuyisingize. “It is interesting to see two golden monkey groups interact,” he adds. “I was expecting them to interact like gorilla groups, where males fight males, but here, females were fighting other females and juveniles were helping them!”

Amphibians and wetlands are ecological indicators

An endangered tree frog found in the forestAmphibians live in wetland areas within Volcanoes National Park, which are especially sensitive environments. Some earlier studies had indicated that wetlands in the park were declining but little was known about the amphibians living there, how they were being affected, and what might be the subsequent effects on broader gorilla habitat. This is now the fifth year of our amphibian research and monitoring, and so far, nine amphibian species have been found, including the endangered Karisimbi tree frog, and some species that have not been reported in any previous studies.

“I was surprised to see frogs that I have never seen in my life, and some of the species were not recorded before at all,” says Tuyisingize. These species are living in gorilla habitat and need to be studied, he adds.

This year we also included the monitoring of vegetation found in the wetlands, in order to better understand the impact of invasive plant species and how they may accelerate the disappearance of the wetlands. Data is currently being analyzed for scientific publication, and findings will also be communicated to park managers and conservation partners in order to take immediate conservation action before any known threats expand to the whole gorilla habitat.

Bamboo is an important plant

Gorillas consume up to 200 plant species and thus are closely intertwined with the flora around them. While most gorilla food plant species are available throughout the year, bamboo shoots – a real favorite among the gorillas – are only available during the two rainy seasons each year. Because bamboo grows in a bamboo “zone” at the very edge of the Volcanoes National Park, bamboo-shoot season is the time of year we often find the gorillas ranging outside of the park. Such behavior can lead to a variety of problems, such as eating eucalyptus trees and other crops or getting too close to human communities, and requires considerable extra monitoring and protection by our staff. In addition, bamboo is also the key food species for golden monkeys in the park, which are found exclusively in the bamboo zone. And even buffaloes and elephants in this habitat feed on bamboo shoots.

To increase our understanding of this critical food resource, the Fossey Fund initiated a long-term bamboo phenology study in 2013. Our teams established 82 plots at varying altitudes in the bamboo zones. Each year, these plots are monitored during the two wet seasons and a variety of data are collected. Once we have three full years of data on bamboo shooting patterns, we will analyze how the amount of bamboo shoots correlates with gorilla-ranging patterns and will also try to determine what factors, such as the amount of rainfall or sunlight, might influence the number of bamboo shoots produced. Such information will be valuable for conservation management and protection of the gorillas and their habitat. Bamboo is also a key plant species important to local people, since the bamboo zone grows adjacent to their agricultural lands and protects them from erosion.

Training students as future conservationists

Much of our research work in biodiversity is also being used as an opportunity to train future conservationists, such as local university students, on how to carry out field research. Currently, some 200-300 university students are trained on techniques used in research on biodiversity in the gorilla habitat, whether in the field or in the offices at Karisoke. Many of these students then go on to play important roles in conservation, science and education, all of which are significant in helping save gorillas and their diverse and rich forest habitat.

“I like to teach future conservationists in order to keep the biodiversity research, monitoring and conservation updated, and to have experts in place for taking action for biodiversity conservation,” says Tuyisingize. “Without this training, the future for the biodiversity is limited, and will face many challenges. When I teach young people, especially undergraduates, I tell them that the future of biodiversity is the future for them.”