Are you a primatologist or conservationist? Did you know that conducting a population census for mountain gorillas is of great importance in conservation and tourism? Mountain gorillas are listed under IUCN Redbook as the most critically endangered primate species and globally, they are fewer than 900 individuals that thrive in only Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Because they are endangered, many people from all parts of the world fly into East Africa mainly to see the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Some tourists book through tour operators, while others just hire 4×4 cars in Nairobi and drive their own adventure through Uganda to Bwindi Impenetrable forest for this activity.
However, given the fact that they are at risk of extinction today, it is of importance that their health status and numbers are taken note of to help in their effective protection and conservation in the wild. A periodic census for these rare species is conducted where conservationists and park authorities from different protected areas come together to ensure that the exercise is conducted successfully.
Mountain gorillas exist in 2 (two) isolated populations, the one in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park southwestern Uganda and the other in the Virunga Volcanoes featuring mainly the Virunga National Park in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Volcanoes National Park in northwestern Rwanda, and Mgahinga National Park in Southwestern Uganda. Mostly, these rare apes spend much of their time in thick forests, at higher altitudes, and in conservation areas that feature an intense human population that also puts a lot of pressure on gorilla habitat.
To ensure an effective survey for the mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park this year, different teams have to hike via the thick jungles of at least 500 meters apart while also searching for gorilla signs and nests along the marked trails. This survey is periodic and it is carried out after 5 years and for 2018, the census is already underway in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and the second phase of it will be done in September.
Mountain gorilla survey in the Virunga Mountains began in the 1970s at a time when Dian Fossey was also conducting her research work. Gorilla census in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park was first done in 1997.
This survey consists and supported by the International Gorilla Conservation Program, Uganda Wildlife Authority, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Institute of Tropical Conservation (ITFC), the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaborative Secretariat (GTVCS), the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), park authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gorilla doctors as well as the Dian Fossey Fund team.
The previous survey in Bwindi National Park was conducted around 2012 and approximately 400 mountain gorillas were recorded compared to 302 individuals that were recorded in 2006. Population census for the Virunga mountain gorillas where the Dian Fossey Fund conducts its daily conservation patrols were carried out from 2015 to 2016.
Given the rigorous conservation and protection, this census also indicated a slight increase in the number of these rare apes and this makes the rare mountain gorillas the only primate species whose population is a bit increasing. Despite their current population of about 900 plus other likely dangers, the rare mountain gorillas are still listed in the IUCN Redbook as the most critically endangered species on earth.
The process of population census in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park
The sweep method and fecal samples will be used to help in generic analysis. The sweep method involves staff moving to every demarcated area of the protected area in a zigzag way while looking out for the fresh gorilla trails until the nests are got and recorded. The Bwindi National Park gorilla census will be conducted in 2 (two) phases (sweeps). The first phase starts in March 2018 and the second sweep in September. Teams involved will be separated into 12 (twelve) groups, with 6 in the forest at a time, divided into 3 camps. In every sweep, the goal is to systematically cover the whole habitat and take note of all gorilla evidence by searching for trails, signs, and nest sites.
The groups will also collect fecal samples for genetic analysis. The training exercise is already ongoing with personnel from Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and not to forget the team from Dian Fossey Fund. Once the counting is done, groups will camp in the forest for about 2 weeks at a time and walk along the pre-planned recess every day to look for signs of the gorillas particularly the nest sites, collecting fecal samples from every nest to help in DNA testing to ensure that there is no repeat counting of the same gorillas in the wild. The teams will also take note of the signs of other big mammals and any illegal practices in the jungle.
In conclusion, the mountain gorilla population census is ideally the most significant exercise as it will help in monitoring and planning the process for gorilla conservation and protection. The results obtained will indicate the effectiveness of the conservation and protection measure employed by park authorities as well as other conservation bodies that are involved in ensuring the long survival of these critically endangered apes in the wild. This will help in understanding whether the gorilla numbers are increasing or simply reducing and derive effective measures to protect them from extinction.