We were walking through dense rainforest in the Virunga National Park in Congo, rain dripping from the trees, the rangers using their machetes to clear the way for us. We knew the gorillas were nearby, but not sure where.
Text and photos by: Melissa de Kock, Senior Advisor at WWF-Norway
So we were walking very slowly and very quietly, searching the forest for any signs of the gorilla family we were tracking. We came out of a particularly thick piece of forest into a small clearing and there he was, suddenly, right in front of us. The silverback. Nothing prepares you for the sight of an animal like this. So noble, so utterly magnificent.
A mother was sitting close to the Silverback, nursing her child, holding the baby close to her.
While we stood and watched the family, two youngsters moved a little closer to us, play fighting with each other.
Words cannot adequately describe this beautiful and moving experience of being with gorillas in their natural habitat. I felt awe, amazement and tenderness; I laughed and I cried.
Sadly, as large and strong as they are, these magnificent animals face many challenges to their survival.
According to the World Conservation Union (IUCN), mountain gorillas are critically endangered and live only in forested mountain areas, between 1,100-4,500 metres above sea level. There are few populations left of these gorillas: one of 400 individuals live in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, and the other of 480 individuals in the Virunga Mountains shared by Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda. While still relatively small populations, this is an increase from 1989 when there were only 620 animals.
Mountain gorillas face many threats to their survival, mainly from humans. Increasing human population and migrations caused by wars and other turmoil have caused people to encroach upon mountain gorillas’ habitat, clearing land for agriculture and settlement and destroying the forests that gorillas live in. Even land within protected areas is not safe from people and destruction. Thousands of refugees fled the war in Rwanda in the 1990s and the years of civil unrest in the DRC and moved into the region around the Virunga Mountains parks, leading to destruction of gorilla habitat, and even killing of gorillas. This area is still experiencing some unrest, as various rebel groups continue to operate there. Rebels previously occupied parts of the park, making conservation work very difficult and dangerous. People also cut down the forest to make charcoal which they use for cooking and heating, destroying parts of gorillas’ forest home. Encroaching human populations bring other risks too, such as diseases to which gorillas are susceptible. Humans can pass diseases to gorillas, and even the common cold can mean death to a mountain gorilla. While it is rare that gorillas are purposefully targeted for poaching for meat, they can be caught in snares set by people to catch other animals.
Another risk to mountain gorillas is that of oil exploration in their habitat. Oil has been discovered in Virunga National Park and oil exploration concessions covering 85% of the park have been awarded to oil companies. Drilling will have a significant negative impact on the park and on gorillas.
Gorillas and climate change
But now, on top of all these pressures, there is yet another one: man-made climate change. Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to get warmer with climate change, with very high temperatures projected to occur frequently. Most projections indicate an increase in rainfall for eastern Africa, though there is significant uncertainty. If rainfall does increase, it is likely to be erratic, rather than evenly distributed over time, which could make ongoing access to freshwater difficult for both wildlife and humans.
Happily, mountain gorillas have a number of traits that make them fairly resilient to a changing climate: they can live in a wide range of temperatures, and they are already used to fairly high climate variability from intense heat in the low altitude areas to severe cold at the snow-capped volcanoes. They have low freshwater needs, as they get most of their water from food rather than drinking from free-standing water sources. And they feed on up to 140 different species, including leaves, shoots and stems, bark, roots, flowers, fruit and occasionally ants. This means that if one food source dies off because of too little rain or too high temperatures, they still have a range of other food sources available to them.
However, a number of other traits make them vulnerable to a changing climate: their population is already very small, so if a few die off, this will impact the population and genetic diversity greatly. Their habitat is also quite small and they are confined to fairly small areas surrounded by a fairly high human population, thus cannot move easily if they need to because of climate change. Another challenge they face, is their low reproductive rate: they give birth on average to one baby every four years from around the age of 10. In their lifetimes, an adult female will only have 3-4 surviving offspring.
As mentioned, mountain gorillas are very susceptible to disease. In addition to the ever increasing contact between humans and gorillas as humans move closer to gorillas, climate change is projected to increase the spread of certain diseases. Other threats, like habitat destruction, poaching, civil unrest, oil exploration and drilling, charcoal production and growing human population pressure, are likely to increase as climate change places greater stress on humans and their existing livelihoods, which in turn means those humans encroach more and more into gorillas’ habitat.
What WWF is doing
WWF is working with local communities around the Virunga National Park to raise environmental awareness and improve the management of natural resources outside the park, so as to reduce pressures within the park. As the park recovers from civil unrest, WWF has worked to reforest areas and to promote forest friendly cooking methods to reduce cutting the forest for fuelwood. WWF also works with governments, timber companies and local communities in the Congo Basin to improve sustainable forest management and environmental practices in the logging industry. WWF is also working at global levels to stop emissions of gases which cause climate change, so as to slow and ideally stop climate change which affects these mountain gorillas and other species.
WWF has also established an Africa Climate Change Adaptation Programme. This program provides WWF staff with capacity building on climate change and adaptation, supports WWF offices to undertake climate smart conservation, and works with local communities to implement climate change adaptation strategies.
For more information on activities to conserve gorillas: http://igcp.org/