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Thursday, 17 October, 2002, 02:09 GMT 03:09 UK
Hopes rise for mountain gorillas
Volcanoes on Uganda/Rwanda border   Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna & Flora International
Mountain gorilla country: The Virunga volcanoes at dawn

A century after their first sighting by Europeans, central Africa's mountain gorillas are slowly increasing.

Despite fears that they faced imminent extinction, the gorillas' numbers have risen by nearly 9% in 13 years.


I'm holding my breath - the humanitarian situation in the DRC is quite desperate

Dr Annette Lanjouw, IGCP director
Conservationists say a vital way to protect them is by attracting more tourists.

They believe the gorillas can help to rebuild the economies of the war-shattered countries where they live.

It was on 17 October 1902 that the species was first sighted by a non-African, when a German explorer, Oscar von Beringei, came across one.

Cross-border population

Two animals were subsequently shot and sent to Europe for identification. The gorillas' scientific name is Gorilla beringei beringei.

Infant gorilla tries to wake sleeping mother   Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna & Flora International
Mother sleeps on, despite the infant: Rwandan gorillas
Today half of the animals live in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The rest are split between Mgahinga National Park, also in Uganda, the Volcano National Park in Rwanda, and the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

In 1989, there were 620 individuals - today there are thought to be about 674, the increase having occurred among the gorillas living outside Bwindi.

Threats to the apes include hunting, capture for the illegal pet trade, and especially habitat loss.

Three conservation groups formed a coalition to save the species, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP).
Mountain gorillas
Mainly vegetarian, but sometimes eat insects and snails
Live for up to 50 years
Are usually peaceful, despite awesome displays
Spend about 25% of their waking hours eating
Sleep at night in nests on the ground
The groups are WWF, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), and Fauna and Flora International (FFI).

The IGCP director, Dr Annette Lanjouw, said: "International and national efforts to protect this species have pulled the mountain gorilla back from the brink of extinction.

"However, if we want to ensure that they survive another hundred years, we must ensure that we lift the pressures that still threaten their forest home."

The IGCP says eco-tourism is a notable success, with more than 10,000 tourists visiting the gorillas in some years.

Apes' or humans' needs

There are risks, not least that the visitors may infect the animals with diseases that can prove fatal.

The countries where the mountain gorillas live have been wracked by war and are among the poorest in the world.

Clearing land for agriculture   Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna & Flora International
No room for gorillas: Farming replaces forest
But the IGCP says: "The income from tourism to gorillas has probably been the single most important factor in ensuring... that the parks have continued to be supported and conservation activities continued over the decades.

"The income from gorilla tourism is one of the main sources of foreign revenue for the three host countries."

Dr Lanjouw told BBC News Online: "This is a very modest increase in the gorillas' numbers, and we'd have expected a much higher one if they faced no threats.

Scared off

"But the population is okay - even with this slow increase the gorillas are viable.

"For the future, I'm holding my breath. The humanitarian situation in the DRC is quite desperate.

"There are encouraging signs of a willingness to talk by the big players in the war, but we have still to see that translated into action.

"The war is exacerbating habitat loss and the other risks the gorillas face. Tourism is thriving in both Uganda and Rwanda - but no-one's going to see the DRC gorillas."

Images courtesy and copyright of Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna & Flora International

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Peter Van Velsen
"The Mountain Gorilla has retreated"
See also:

07 Oct 02 | Science/Nature
03 Oct 01 | Science/Nature
20 May 01 | Science/Nature
18 May 01 | Africa
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