September 29, 2005

Rare Congo Gorillas Surviving War

KINSHASA -- Thousands more rare lowland gorillas than previously thought may have survived years of war and poaching in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a U.S. conservation group said on Thursday.

Although the eastern lowland gorilla has disappeared from nearly a quarter of its traditional territory, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI) now estimates there are still between 5,500 and 28,000 of the apes left.

Also known as Grauer's gorilla, the endangered ape is found only in the Congo, which has experienced a decade of wars and internal conflict.

"We found two important populations of Grauer's gorilla that were severely underestimated, neglected or thought not to exist," Patrick Mehlman, vice president of Atlanta-based DFGFI's Africa programmes, told Reuters on Thursday.

He said the wide range of the new population estimate was due to the difficulty in pinning down gorilla numbers. Researchers made their estimates by counting gorilla nests in searches that intersected large areas.

The rare good news came from studies in Tayna Gorilla Reserve and Maiko National Park, sanctuaries in Congo's lawless east where invading armies and Congolese rebels fought two wars during the past decade.

"These are new groups that are worthy of conservation," Mehlman said, adding that bringing traditional chiefs and local communities into conservation was beginning to produce results.

The plight of gorillas in Africa was made famous in the 1988 film "Gorillas in the Mist" about American researcher Dian Fossey who studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda in the 1960s.

She wrote a book of the same name before she was hacked to death in Congo's Virunga National Park in 1985.

"In Maiko, where we thought there were only 33 gorillas. We are now looking at a population of about 600 or more," Mehlman said. Research carried out by the DFGFI found that there are still between 367 and 1,129 Grauer's gorillas in Tayna.


Added to the years of conflict and poaching, Congo's gorillas are threatened by habitat loss as farmers moving from more populated areas slash down forests to plant crops and provide grazing area for domesticated animals.

But by working closely with communities and chiefs and highlighting the Grauer apes' potential to attract tourists, conservationists are fostering local environmental awareness.

"It is difficult to get people interested in conservation if they are starving and don't have any medical care," Mehlman said. "But in the east, communities are becoming stewards of their own resources."

"On the one hand, there was a real feeling of loss as the chiefs realized they were losing their forests and resources. On the other, we are employing people and doing development work such as providing health, running micro projects and working with orphans," he added.

Conservationists from around the world met in Kinshasa earlier this month to devise new strategies to save the world's great apes -- humankind's closest relatives -- from being wiped out by poaching, logging and disease within a generation.