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Saturday, 27 January, 2001, 16:50 GMT
Gorillas do well despite war
young gorilla
Gorilla numbers have risen by more than 10% in a decade in Virunga
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Despite the trauma and disturbance of a savage war, Africa's mountain gorillas are slowly improving their prospects of survival.

Conservationists say one gorilla population, which contains more than half the world total for the species, has increased its numbers in the last decade.

Monitoring shows the Virunga gorillas, on the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have increased by at least 11% since 1989.

There are estimated to be fewer than 650 mountain gorillas left in the wild.

The species is highly endangered, not just because of the years of fighting in the area, but also because of heavy pressure on the forests where the gorillas live.

But with the Virunga gorillas now numbering 355 animals, up from 320 in 1989, conservation groups are cautiously encouraged.

Hope despite conflict

And they believe that even that figure is likely to prove an underestimate.

large gorilla
A silverback in the forest
The gorillas have been monitored by two organisations. One is the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), a joint initiative of the African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna and Flora International, and WWF, the global environment campaign.

IGCP monitors the entire range of the mountain gorillas, those in Virunga and the smaller population in the Bwindi Impenetrable national park in Uganda.

Also involved in the monitoring is the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund - International, which records data from the research groups of animals in Rwanda.

Annette Lanjouw, director of the IGCP, said: "This success proves that even in a region hammered by conflict and crises, there is hope."

'Remarkable accomplishment'

Michael Wright, president of the African Wildlife Foundation, said the IGCP was the only conservation organisation to have kept working during the political and social chaos that had swept through the area.

"There is a future for both people and wildlife, when people work together despite political differences", he said.

"The increase in the mountain gorilla's population is one of the most remarkable conservation accomplishments of the last decade."

The IGCP emphasises the courage and dedication of field staff working in the Virunga forests.

gorilla mother and infant
Despite disturbance, the gorillas are breeding
It says the dedicated work of park rangers and trackers, many of whom have been killed or wounded in Rwanda and Congo, has limited the damage to the habitat, and to the gorillas themselves.

Apart from the use of the Virungas by armed groups as a base and transit corridor, thousands of civilians have sought refuge there, and many have stayed on, relying on farming and hunting to survive.

Primates under pressure

About 15 gorillas are known to have died as a direct consequence of the war.

The IGCP says the three countries' park authorities, and their governments, have not wavered in their determination to protect the gorillas.

Mountain gorillas grow to six feet (1.8 metres) in height, and can weigh up to 425 pounds. They are vegetarians.

Gorillas, the largest primates, are one of humanity's closest relatives. But all primates are under intense pressure, and some scientists expect there will be no great ape populations living in the wild by 2020.

Photographs courtesy of Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna and Flora International

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See also:

22 Nov 99 | Africa
Protecting gorillas in a war zone
31 Jul 99 | Africa
Gorilla slaughter in Congo
12 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Dire outlook for many primates
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