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For World Gorilla Day 2021, a conservation success story

  • The NGO that helped establish World Gorilla Day — the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund — has learned a few important lessons for the conservation of gorillas and other species over the years.
  • Firstly, conservation can’t happen without local support: when community members they work with come to understand the importance of the habitat that surrounds them, the project can succeed. Another lesson is that conservation takes time, money and diversification.
  • “By engaging rather than excluding communities and ensuring that local people benefit from conservation, we have found that we can protect wildlife with a footprint that is 15 times smaller than that for mountain gorillas.”
  • This article is an analysis for World Gorilla Day 2021 by the chief scientific officer of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and does not necessarily reflect the views of Mongabay.

I saw my first wild gorillas in Rwanda in 2002 and I was immediately drawn in by their power, their beauty, and the awareness that these amazing creatures were, despite their size and strength, at risk of disappearing from our planet. I was hooked.

I’ve been privileged to work alongside scientists and conservationists in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo ever since, studying wild gorillas and searching for ways to protect them and their critically important, biodiverse habitat. When I started out, there were just a few hundred mountain gorillas remaining on the planet, although Dian Fossey’s fear that they would be extinct before the year 2000 had fortunately not come true.

Fast forward to 2017. The organization I lead, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, was celebrating its 50th year, and we worked with partners to launch a new celebration to coincide with the start of Dian’s pioneering work: World Gorilla Day has been observed every year since on September 24.

In the five years since, the governments of Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo, together with the larger conservation community, have made incredible strides in bringing mountain gorillas back from the brink. There are now 1,063 individual mountain gorillas in two separate populations, and in 2018 mountain gorillas were upgraded from IUCN’s “critically endangered” list to “endangered” — a fragile success, but still a cause for celebration.

An infant Grauer’s gorilla in Kahuzi-Biéga National Park in the DR Congo. About 60% of the species’ global population lives in the park and surrounding community forests. Image by Joe McKenna via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0) .

Since that first World Gorilla Day in 2017, we’ve never missed a day in the forest. We have spent all 1,826 days protecting individual gorillas and their families. In addition, our teams have removed 4,881 snares from the forests of Rwanda and the DRC, and none of the gorillas in the groups we monitor have been injured or killed by a snare. We’ve helped tens of thousands of people through our livelihood, education and food and water security programs, reducing human reliance on the forests and protecting the biodiverse gorilla habitat. We’ve collaborated with scientists from around the world to publish more than 60 scientific papers on gorillas and larger biodiversity issues. And we’ve helped to train more than a thousand African university students, building the next generation of conservationists and scientists in the region to ensure that the work Dian Fossey started more than five decades ago will continue well into the future.

Along the way we’ve learned a few important lessons for conservation of gorillas and other species.

Conservation can’t happen without local community support. The community members we work with understand the importance of the habitat that surrounds them. In some cases, as we’ve seen in eastern DR Congo, landowners have lived on the land and served as its stewards for generations. But they also need to provide for their families. Working together, we’ve found ways to protect the land and its wildlife while at the same time ensuring the people who live there have jobs, food and education. A recent census of the Grauer’s gorillas of the DRC found that gorillas living in community-owned conservation areas like the NCA are faring better than gorillas in national parks — because the landowners take their responsibility to protect the habitat seriously.

Conservation takes time, money and diversification. Mountain gorillas are the only great ape that is increasing in number. And there are reasons for that — decades of investment by governments and conservation organizations and a protection presence that is 20 times greater than the global average. But this is what likely is required when we get down to only a few hundred of a species or subspecies remaining. With enough upfront investment, such extreme conservation efforts may not be needed.

For example, in eastern DR Congo where we are helping to save the critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas, we work closely with local leaders to create community-managed forests. By engaging rather than excluding communities and ensuring that local people benefit from conservation, we have found that we can protect wildlife with a footprint that is 15 times smaller than that for mountain gorillas. However, what the last year has shown us is that we need diversified funding sources for conservation — we cannot solely depend on ecotourism, which can be brought to a grinding halt by pandemics or economic downturns — to pay for conservation. For the world to have gorillas and lions and rhinos, we all need to contribute to their survival.

See related: Overcoming community-conservation conflict to ensure a future for gorillas: Q&A with Dominique Bikaba

Silverback Pato, pictured here with two other family members, is the leader of Titus group, a group of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) that lives in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Image courtesy of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

Saving a species on the other side of the globe has profound implications for humans everywhere. Hurricanes originating in the southern United States flood the subway tunnels of New York City. Fires in California spread choking clouds of smoke into the Midwest. Deforestation in the Amazon River basin leads to rising water levels around the globe. Scientists understand that protecting the trees and forests in one part of the planet can have positive effects on an urban cityscape elsewhere. When gorillas move through the forest, they act as ecosystem engineers through their foraging and nesting behaviors. They eat plants and scatter seeds, leading to new regrowth. These gorilla gardeners keep their faraway forests healthy, slowing the rate of worldwide climate change and reducing the risk of natural disasters in your hometown.

Protecting gorillas is important business. And it’s never boring. I’ve been privileged to spend my career studying gorillas, celebrating each new baby born and each acre of land protected. I’m honored that our organization has helped train so many students in Africa, knowing that they would soon graduate and join us as conservation colleagues. And, for the past five years, I’ve paused each September 24 to celebrate how far we’ve come and to acknowledge the difficult road still ahead.

So this year on World Gorilla Day, look around.  You probably don’t have gorillas roaming in your backyard. But there is an entire ecosystem under your feet, and it needs your help. Start there. And know that through your work, you are already protecting the gorillas and their habitat, just as they are protecting you.

Dr. Tara Stoinski is president, CEO and chief scientific officer of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. She has studied gorillas for more than two decades and is the author of more than 100 scientific publications and books. 

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: How a radio program is helping save critically endangered gorillas in Nigeria, listen here:

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