This is our first guest blog post about gorilla conservation, written by Gretchen Clymer. Gretchen first became passionate about primate conservation after reading Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey as a teenager. She went on to complete undergraduate and graduate studies in Biological Anthropology, conducting behavioral research on different primate species, including golden lion tamarins, rhesus macaques, and chacma baboons. She has worked for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI) in both Atlanta and Musanze, Rwanda. As a primatologist, she has remained active in primate conservation and welfare, including currently working with Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda. Photo: Ian and Kate Bruce, 2013.
The threats to the survival of mountain gorillas, and all of the great apes, are severe and multi-faceted. Habitat loss due to logging and industry, armed conflict, the illegal bushmeat and pet trades, and infectious disease represent significant threats to the populations of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Over the past 50 years, approaches to ape conservation have shifted as conservationists understand more and more that survival of ape populations is inextricably linked with the welfare and involvement of the communities that live near chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan habitats.
Early approaches in conservation
The pioneering research conducted by Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birutė Galdikas in the 1960’s-1970’s brought the world’s attention to the fascinating behaviors of the great apes. Their work also brought to light the pressures that threatened the very survival of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Conservation approaches at that time were largely focused on preservation of habitat, and the assumption that conservation of apes and their habitat was primarily realized through enforcement. Dian Fossey, in particular, championed methods she called “active conservation,” that were often antagonistic towards communities residing on the fringes of mountain gorilla habitat. This method of conservation focused only on protecting mountain gorilla populations while failing to take into account that poachers, loggers, and encroachers were not motivated by maliciousness, but rather the simple and stark need to provide for themselves and their families.
Bisate Health Clinic, Musanze, Rwanda. Photo: Gretchen Clymer, 2007.
The shift towards community-involved conservation
Habitat preservation is certainly paramount in working for the survival of the great apes, and this requires legislation to protect habitat as well as enforcement of existing legal protections for ape habitat and poaching bans. However, as approaches in ape conservation have been refined over the last 50 years, conservationists have learned the importance of embracing local communities in conservation, and of the intertwined relationship between human welfare and ape conservation.
Since Dian Fossey’s untimely and tragic death in 1985, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI) and other mountain gorilla conservation groups have taken a different approach to conservation, focusing on including the local community into conservation efforts, through community programs, research, and eco-tourism.
It is estimated that “gorilla tourism may exceed $30 million USD shared between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)” (International Gorilla Conservation Program, 2014). Gorilla and other great ape eco-tourism not only brings money directly to conservation efforts by providing funds for anti-poaching patrols and research studies, but also helps to create a link to the local community by establishing a tourism industry, which in turn provides financial security to the area while actively discouraging unsustainable poaching and deforestation practices. Providing social services for population areas where community needs are great and currently unmet is an additional effective strategy to involve the community in conservation efforts. For example, the DFGFI, partnering with other organizations, provides funding for the Bisate Health Clinic, a rural health clinic in Musanze, Rwanda, by helping to promote health, education, and economic growth in an attempt to provide these communities with the opportunities to become more self-sufficient and less dependent on resources gathered from within the boundaries of the park.
Another program, in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest of Uganda, is Conservation through Public Health, which has focused on preventing “the spread of disease from wild animals to humans, and vice versa, by improving primary healthcare for people and animals in and around protected areas in Africa” (Whitley Fund for Nature, 2011). The program has sought to engage the local community by enlisting their help with gorilla population surveys and monitoring, as well as devoting efforts to community-led outreach and education. Conservation through Public Health also strengthens eco-tourism programs by improving facilities for this important conservation sector and ensuring that disease from visiting guests is not then spread to vulnerable mountain gorillas.
Virungas Volcanic Range, Rwanda. Photo: Gretchen Clymer, 2007.
Educational programs and support are another important realm in community-involved conservation. Practical education programs on health and sustainability can support local communities and ease resource or ecological pressures on ape habitat resources. Conservation education (from primary through graduate education levels), fosters local pride and involvement in conservation and can be hugely impactful in ongoing conservation efforts for apes. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International is active in nearly every level of educational opportunity in the communities near mountain gorilla habitat – from health education programs in local communities, to conservation education in local schools, up through graduate research training at the Karisoke research center. These efforts not only demonstrate that conservation is beneficial to the local communities, they show respect to communities as key stakeholders in conservation.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Photo: Ian and Kate Bruce, 2013.
Signs for Hope
In the past decade, it appears community-outreach focused conservational approaches show promising signs of success for the mountain gorillas. A 2010 census of mountain gorillas showed a ~26% increase in their numbers in the Virungas since the prior census in 2003 (Gray et al, 2010). While still critically endangered, an increase in population – particularly with ongoing conflict in the region – is a significant victory for the efforts of conservationists and the local communities.
The close proximity between human populations and endangered great apes is undoubtedly a factor in the threat to ape survival. However, fifty years of conservation efforts have demonstrated the importance of protecting apes with the cooperation and support of the populations that reside in proximity to ape habitat. Providing training and material support in sustainable agriculture helps to mitigate the need to log or hunt in critical ape habitat. Using ape conservation funds to provide basic health services such as clean water and medical clinics makes ape conservation beneficial to both the apes and humans in the area. Lastly, educational outreach can instill a sense of local pride in the majestic gorillas, and will hopefully bring about the next generation of conservationists sharing a common homeland with the apes, who will then strive to increase mountain gorilla populations to sustainable levels.
International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP). 2014. “Tourism.”
Whitely Fund for Nature, 2011. “Mountain Gorilla Conservation through Public Health, Uganda.”
Gray, M. Fawcett, K., Basabose, A., Cranfield, M., Vigilant, L., Roy, J., Uwingeli, P., Mburanumwe, I., Kagoda, E., Robbins, M. 2010. Virunga Massif Mountain Gorilla Census — 2010 Summary Report.