The critically endangered mountain gorilla’s current status is to be revealed through a census to determine its population size in the Virunga Volcanoes area that straddles the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda in Eastern and Central Africa. The Virunga Volcanoes is one of only two locations where mountain gorillas live, whose total numbers are currently estimated at 680 individuals. Though the area is now relatively calm, recent conflict in the Mikeno sector of Virunga National Park in the DRC has left the gorillas there vulnerable. The last Virunga Volcanoes census in 2003 resulted in an estimate of 380 individuals, with the remaining individuals living in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park Uganda. The Wildlife and National Park Authorities of Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC will collaborate on the census, which is planned for March and April 2010.
The census is an opportunity to make an accurate count of the total gorilla population in the Virunga Volcanoes. Fecal samples will also be collected for genetic analysis to confirm the population size and for better understanding the genetic variability and health status of the population. Such monitoring is vitally important in understanding the long-term viability and measuring the effects of the recent history of conflict in the region on such a small population of critically endangered animals. Eugene Rutagarama, Director of census partner the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), stated, “The Gorilla census is an exercise enabling us to assess the impact of conservation efforts carried out by all gorilla conservation stakeholders. We are hoping that the census will confirm a continuous increase of the mountain gorilla population and guide us on how we can further contribute to the growth of this still endangered population.”
Launching on March 1st, the census will involve 80 team members. Team members, which will be drawn from the staff of the various protected area (National Park) authorities and their partners, will traverse the entire Virunga gorilla habitat range over a period of approximately eight weeks.
The census is being carried out by the Rwanda Development Board/ Tourism and Conservation, the Congolese Wildlife Authority and the Uganda Wildlife Authority. The exercise will be supported by the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) through the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (a coalition of AWF, WWF and FFI). Other supporters include the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Results will be vital in looking at population trends and determining the best collaborative way forward for mountain gorilla conservation.