By Curtis Abraham

Kampala, Feb 20 – The Grauer’s gorilla, a lowland subspecies of the Eastern gorilla group that also includes Mountain gorillas, have suffered massive population declines over the past two decades. Their numbers plummeted from an estimated 16,900 in the early 1990s to 3,800 by 2016 (a 77% decline) due to rampant poaching for bush-meat during the two civil wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

However, recent investigations have found evidence that their population numbers are much higher than previously thought.

Ongoing surveys of Grauer’s gorillas in an area between Kahuzi and Maiko National Parks in eastern DRC by researchers from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and the government of the DRC have found approximately 40 gorillas in just 1 per cent of the entire park.

“Which is more than was estimated to be left in the entire park based on the last report,” said Tara Stoinski, President, CEO and Chief Scientific Officer at the Atlanta-based Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

A 2016 research paper had estimated that there were only 15 gorillas left in Maiko Park.

The Gorilla Fund works with local Congolese communities in the corridor between Kahuzi Biega and Maiko National Park to create community protected forests. The Gorilla Fund in 2011-12 started protecting an area of 700 square kilometres with an estimated 2,000 Grauer’s gorillas.

The team is made up of 55 Congolese, most of whom are from villages adjacent to the forests. One of their main activities is daily monitoring of gorillas and other biodiversity. In addition, the work of the Gorilla Fund also includes improving the lives of local communities through education, livelihood initiatives, and food security.

The Grauer’s gorilla has not had a high profile like that of its cousin and immediate neighbour to the northeast, the Mountain gorilla. For example, Mountain gorillas have been surveyed regularly since the late 1970s and their numbers have been on the increase over the past decade. Conversely, there have been relatively few surveys of Grauer’s gorillas and only one attempt to count them across their range.

Poaching Congo’s largest ape by armed militias and rebel groups were to blame for the decline in its population. Despite being protected by law, gorillas are highly prized as bush-meat because of their large size and they are killed relatively easy with guns since they move in groups on the ground and can be tracked more easily than other large primates such as chimpanzees.

The first civil war in eastern DRC resulted in the formation of many armed groups, including those from local communities protecting their interests from their rivals and clashing over access to mining areas. Artisanal mining expanded in North and South Kivu Provinces with most mines controlled by armed militia or soldiers from the national army. Artisanal miners and militia often operate in remote forests, far from villages and resort to hunting the local fauna to feed themselves, targeting the larger species that provide more meat.

The Congo Basin forests contain some of the most valuable mineral deposits in the world according to the World Bank. Mining contributes nearly 25 per cent to DRC’s GDP but threatens forests in the basin. Approximately 12 per cent of the forests are currently protected according to the UN Environment Programme. The search for geopolitical minerals such as coltan and cassiterite, which are used in today’s consumer electronics (i.e. laptop computers and mobile phones) as well as the traditional precious minerals such as diamonds and gold, has led to an increase in bushmeat hunting to feed the miners far away from urban centres.

The population decline of the Grauer’s gorilla has led to a dramatic drop in their genetic diversity. This not only limits their ability to adapt to fast-changing environments but results in lower fertility and leaves them vulnerable to infectious diseases.

The Gorilla Fund is also working on research papers regarding the ranging patterns in the lowland portion of their habitat.

“Despite the fact that the majority of Grauer’s gorillas live in lowland forests, they’ve only been studied in the high altitude portion of their habitat,” laments Stoinski.