January 27, 2009

Gorilla Numbers Increasing In War-Torn Congo

A new census count released on Tuesday showed the population of mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Virunga National Park has risen by 12.5 percent.

Rangers from the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) conducted more than 128 patrols during the eight-week census.

They found that about 211 of the great apes were estimated to be currently residing in Africa's oldest national park, with 81 new arrivals now living there permanently.

ICCN gorilla monitoring head Innocent Mburanumwe, who writes a regular "gorilla diary" for the BBC News website, said mountain gorilla family structures change with each birth, death, interaction and migration.

"The Kabirizi family, our largest gorilla group with 33 individuals, has five newborns which is wonderful news," he said.

He said they are still hoping to locate the two gorillas from this same family that have not been seen for some time.

This is the first census to be completed by the park's wildlife rangers since rebel troops seized control of the area in August 2007.

Ten baby gorillas were born into four of the habituated families during the 16-month period from August 2007 until January 2009, but three gorillas that had been previously identified in the August 2007 census have not been found and are listed as missing.

The gorillas can be tracked by their individual nose patterns. Rangers in the region also discovered and removed 536 snares laid by poachers.

Emmanuel de Merode, the director of Virunga National Park, called the status of Virunga's Mountain Gorillas a "triumph for conservation."

"It is the product of 15 years' effort and sacrifice on the part of Congo's rangers, (and the result) of the consistent support from international organizations and individuals, and of the sustained determination of three African nations to protect this globally important species," he said.

Mountain gorillas are a critically endangered species, with only 720 remaining in the world. Some 380 of them are located in the Virunga Volcanoes Conservation Area, while a further 320 gorillas live in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda.

Conflict and civil war have decimated much of the region. The gorilla sector of the national park has been under the control of rebel forces since August 2007.

Until recently, officials had not been able to enter the area, and many of the 1,100 rangers had to flee to safety with their families.

These so-called "habituated" gorillas are most at risk of being killed because they do not fear people.

"We are relieved to see that instead of fewer gorillas, which we had feared, there are actually several more animals," said Marc Languy of the WWF's Eastern Africa Regional Problem.

Katerina Guschanski of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said conservationists really don't know what is happening with the population.

"Probably the safest thing is to assume that the population is stable, but we will need to wait for another four of five years to assess how it is changing," she told New Scientist magazine.


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