How do you save en­dan­gered go­ril­las? With lots of hu­man help

Great apes come back from brink of ex­tinc­tion with 1,000 now thriv­ing in cen­tral Africa due to in­tense mon­i­tor­ing, care lift

The Korea Times - - SCIENCE -

KINIGI, Rwanda (AP) — Deep in the rain­for­est of Vol­ca­noes Na­tional Park, a 23-year-old fe­male go­rilla named Ku­rudi feeds on a stand of wild cel­ery. She bends the green stalks and, with long care­ful fin­gers, peels off the ex­te­rior skin to ex­pose the suc­cu­lent in­side.

Bi­ol­o­gist Jean Paul Hirwa notes her meal on his tablet com­puter as he peers out from be­hind a nearby stand of sting­ing net­tles.

The large adult male sit­ting next to her, known as a sil­ver­back, looks at him quizzi­cally. Hirwa makes a low hum — “ahh-mmm” — im­i­tat­ing the go­ril­las’ usual sound of re­as­sur­ance.

“I’m here,” Hirwa is try­ing to say. “It’s OK. No rea­son to worry.”

Hirwa and the two great apes are all part of the world’s long­est-run­ning go­rilla study — a project be­gun in 1967 by famed Amer­i­can pri­ma­tol­o­gist Dian Fossey.

Yet Fossey her­self, who died in 1985, would likely be sur­prised any moun­tain go­ril­las are still left to study. Alarmed by ris­ing rates of poach­ing and de­for­esta­tion in cen­tral Africa, she pre­dicted the species could go ex­tinct by 2000.

In­stead, a con­certed and sus­tained con­ser­va­tion cam­paign has averted the worst and given a sec­ond chance to th­ese great apes, which share about 98 per­cent of hu­man DNA. Last fall, the Switzer­land-based In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture changed the sta­tus of moun­tain go­ril­las from “crit­i­cally en­dan­gered” to “en­dan­gered,” an im­proved if still-frag­ile des­ig­na­tion.

It wouldn’t have hap­pened with­out an in­ter­ven­tion some bi­ol­o­gists call “ex­treme con­ser­va­tion,” which has en­tailed mon­i­tor­ing ev­ery sin­gle go­rilla in the rain­for­est, pe­ri­od­i­cally giv­ing them ve­teri­nary care and fund­ing for­est pro­tec­tion by send­ing money into com­mu­ni­ties that might other­wise re­sent not be­ing able to con­vert the woods into crop­land.

In­stead of dis­ap­pear­ing, the num­ber of moun­tain go­ril­las — a sub­species of eastern go­ril­las — has risen from 680 a decade ago to just over 1,000 to­day. Their pop­u­la­tion is split be­tween two re­gions, in­clud­ing mist-cov­ered de­funct vol­ca­noes within Congo, Uganda and Rwanda — one of Africa’s smallest and most densely pop­u­lated coun­tries.

“The pop­u­la­tion of moun­tain go­ril­las is still vul­ner­a­ble,” says Ge­orge Schaller, a renowned bi­ol­o­gist and go­rilla ex­pert. “But their num­bers are now grow­ing, and that’s re­mark­able.”

Once de­picted in le­gends and films like “King Kong” as fear­some beasts, go­ril­las are ac­tu­ally lan­guid pri­mates that eat only plants and in­sects, and live in fairly sta­ble, ex­tended fam­ily groups. Their strength and chest-thump­ing dis­plays are gen­er­ally re­served for con­tests be­tween male ri­vals.

Ev­ery week, sci­en­tists like Hirwa, who works for the non­profit con­ser­va­tion group the Dian Fossey Go­rilla Fund, gather data as part of longterm be­hav­ioral re­search.

If they see any health prob­lems in the go­ril­las, they in­form the staff at Go­ril­las Doc­tors, a non­govern­men­tal group whose vet­eri­nar­i­ans work in the for­est. The vets mon­i­tor wounds and signs of res­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tions, but in­ter­vene only spar­ingly.

When they do, they al­most never re­move the an­i­mals from the moun­tain.

“Our hos­pi­tal is the for­est,” says Jean Bosco No­heli, a vet­eri­nar­ian at Go­rilla Doc­tors. When his team goes into the field to ad­dress a go­rilla emer­gency, they must carry ev­ery­thing they might need in equip­ment bags weighing up to 100 pounds — in­clud­ing por­ta­ble X-ray ma­chines.

Schaller con­ducted the first de­tailed stud­ies of moun­tain go­ril­las in the 1950s and early ’60s. He also was the first to dis­cover that wild go­ril­las could, over time, be­come com­fort­able with pe­ri­odic hu­man pres­ence, a boon to re­searchers and, later, tourists.

To­day, highly reg­u­lated tour groups hike in the Rwan­dan rain­for­est to watch go­ril­las.

Ticket rev­enue pays for op­er­at­ing costs and out­strips what might have been made from con­vert­ing the rain­for­est to potato farms and cat­tle pas­tures. About 40 per­cent of the for­est al­ready was cleared for agri­cul­ture in the early 1970s.

“With tourism, the ten­sion is al­ways not to over­ex­ploit,” says Dirck Byler, great ape con­ser­va­tion direc­tor at the non­profit Global Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion, which is not in­volved in the Rwanda go­rilla project. “But in Rwanda, so far they’re care­ful, and it’s work­ing.”

The idea of us­ing tourism to help fund con­ser­va­tion was con­tentious when con­ser­va­tion­ists Bill We­ber and Amy Ved­der first pro­posed it while liv­ing in Rwanda dur­ing the 1970s and ’80s. Fossey her­self was skep­ti­cal, but the pair per­sisted.

“The won­der of the go­ril­las’ lives, their cu­rios­ity, their so­cial in­ter­ac­tions — we felt that’s some­thing that could be ac­ces­si­ble to oth­ers, through care­ful tourism,” Ved­der says.

Fig­ur­ing out the bal­ance of how many peo­ple could visit the for­est, and for how long, was a del­i­cate process of trial and er­ror, We­ber says.

In 2005, the Rwan­dan govern­ment adopted a model to steer 5 per­cent of tourism rev­enue from Vol­ca­noes Na­tional Park to build in­fra­struc­ture in sur­round­ing vil­lages, in­clud­ing schools and health clin­ics. Two years ago, the share was raised to 10 per­cent.

To date, about $2 mil­lion has gone into fund­ing vil­lage projects, chief park war­den Pros­per Uwingeli says.

“We don’t want to pro­tect the park with guns. We want to pro­tect and con­serve this park with peo­ple who un­der­stand why, and who take re­spon­si­bil­ity,” he says.

The money from tourism helps, but the re­gion is still poor.

Jean Claude Masen­gesho lives with his par­ents and helps them farm pota­toes. About once a week, the 21-year-old earns a lit­tle ex­tra money help­ing tourists carry their bags up the moun­tain, to­tal­ing about $45 a month. He would some­day like to be­come a tour guide, which could earn him about $320 monthly.

The ob­sta­cle is that most tour guides have at­tended col­lege, and Masen­gesho isn’t sure how his fam­ily can af­ford tu­ition.

“It’s my dream, but it’s very hard,” he says. “In this vil­lage, ev­ery young per­son’s dream is to work in the park.”


Go­rilla track­ers Em­manuel Biza­g­wira, right, and Sa­fari Gabriel ob­serve two go­ril­las from the Agasha group as they play in the Vol­ca­noes Na­tional Park, Rwanda in this Sept. 4 file photo.

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