Though immense, these challenges were all theoretically within our control. We worked with the best trackers in the region, the BaAka, who were comfortable with working long hours and spending all day in the forest in search of gorillas. With time, we were able to persistently track a single group – key to the habituation process – even if it meant following the group into chest-high swamps for days on end. We learned how to approach the gorillas not with aggressive intentions (previously, gorillas were only tracked to be poached) but with careful consideration to the behavioral responses of the gorillas, in an effort to gain their acceptance as neutral features in their habitat.
Upon recently returning to Rwanda in support of the dynamic transboundary conservation initiative, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, some key elements missing in western gorilla conservation have vividly emerged. Firstly the support given by the Protected Area Authorities in Rwanda, Uganda and in Virunga National Park, DRC is significantly more effective. National pride in gorillas as iconic national heritage figures has played a role in this increased commitment, but there is no doubt that the significant revenues generated from mountain gorilla tourism have been critical. Tourism in this area has flourished while it has floundered elsewhere in African great ape range states for several reasons –Rwanda and Uganda have comparatively welcoming immigration policies and entering these countries is not traumatic as it can often be in neighboring countries. Moreover, they are substantially safer than other great ape range countries and superior infrastructure makes traveling to and among the 4 mountain gorilla Protected Areas a breeze compared to the often several day, bone-jarring, off-road adventure one experiences trying to see western gorillas.
This strong support from Protected Area authorities and other strategic partners in mountain gorilla range has also led to improved veterinary surveillance and interventions, key in helping to ensure the health of the gorillas. Lastly, strict law enforcement combined with changing cultural values which support the protection, rather than the harming of gorillas, mean that there have been no direct attempts to poach a mountain gorilla in the last decade.
As we acknowledge the success achieved in mountain gorilla conservation, we must be increasingly aware of their fragile situation, given their low overall numbers. Consequently, we must improve our adherence to conservation best practices as the pressure on the gorillas and their habitat continues to mount, for even the slightest lapse in focus could quickly result in a crash from which the population might not be able to recover. This would spell dire consequences for not only the species itself and the habitat they play a key role in maintaining, but also for the national stakeholders and citizens of ape range states that stand to benefit from their long-term presence.
David Greer is Advisor to the African Great Apes Programme of WWF