Good news for mountain gorillas—these great apes are growing in numbers, thanks in dual part to incredible conservation efforts on behalf of our partner World Wildlife Fund and others affiliated with the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, and a flourishing ecotourism industry. “This is an animal that I can say, without hesitation, would not exist without tourism,” comments Mark Jordahl, a naturalist guide on Nat Hab’s Ultimate Gorilla Safari who lived in Uganda for years. “Conservation tourism has motivated the governments of Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo to preserve gorillas habitats.” These highly intelligent primates now have solid protections thanks to travelers who come from around the world to observe and photograph these fascinating creatures, an experience many consider to be a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounter. Gorilla permit fees go toward supporting conservation programs and community projects.
The mountain gorilla census is a rigorous process—researchers and scouts walk through the jungle, scouting out nests and taking DNA samples from dung, as well as making visual counts from habituated gorilla families that travelers trek to see. The most recent census found gorilla numbers in Bwindi-Sarambwe had risen from 400 in 2011 to 459 today. When combined with the Virunga Massif population, that brings the total number to 1,063 individuals. This is a huge jump from 2008 when the total recorded population was 680. On the IUNC Red List, mountain gorillas have improved in status from critically endangered to endangered, a direction we hope to see more species move.
In the 1980s, mountain gorillas hovered at the brink of extinction: their population had dwindled due to a combination of habitat loss, hunting and disease. When plans were announced to convert more acres of precious forest to cattle pasture, two protégés of Dian Fossey pitched an idea that ultimately saved the mountain gorillas’ natural habitat—ecotourism. What emerged was a flourishing conservation travel program that placed protections on the national parks and generated revenue for local communities. Governing bodies, in turn, grew to understand the economic benefits of safeguarding these rare primates. Due to their highly protected status today, mountain gorillas are the only great ape species increasing in population size.
Despite this uptick in numbers, mountain gorillas still face pressure on all sides. There are two separate populations, one inhabiting Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda and the contiguous Sarambwe Nature Reserve in the Congo and the other found in the Virunga Massif, a chain of eight volcanoes that spread across Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo. Though these areas are only 27 miles apart, there is no gene flow between the two groups, as the land in between is densely populated and intensely cultivated. Mountain gorillas have a range that is constricted to the national parks—human communities and agriculture push up against the boundaries. Without initial conservation efforts, these farmlands would have continued to work their way up the slopes into gorilla habitat.
Because their population still remains relatively small, and “given ongoing risks to mountain gorillas such as habitat encroachment, potential disease transmission, poaching and civil unrest, this increase should serve as both a celebration and a clarion call to all government, NGO and institutional partners to continue to collaborate in our work to ensure the survival of mountain gorillas,” urges Kirsten Gilardi, Gorilla Doctors’ executive director and chief veterinarian officer at UC Davis. While there are still hurdles to overcome, we celebrate the hard work being done and sustainable travel’s role in safeguarding the growing number of gorilla families. Now is a better time than any to see mountain gorillas in the wild, as we welcome the arrival of new babies brought into (what we hope will be) a safer, gentler world.