Story at a glance

  • Forty years ago there were just 240 mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and many feared extinction was imminent.
  • But after decades of “extreme conservation” the number has grown to 1,069, according to a new report.
  • The new census surveyed the population of gorillas living between the DRC and Uganda, finding that the population had increased from an estimated 400 in 2011 to 459.

The mountain gorillas of east Africa are continuing their fragile recovery after decades of “extreme conservation,” according to a new report. A census of gorillas living in the mountains between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) found the forests held 459 of the great apes, an increase from the 400 previously thought to occupy the area, Mongabay reports.  

This elevates the total wild population of the subspecies to 1,069 gorillas. The population is split between two places: with one group occupying the Virunga Mountains between Rwanda and the DRC, and the other living in the Bwindi-Sarambwe ecosystem straddling the border of Uganda and the DRC.

Back in the 1980s, there were just 240 mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains after years of habitat loss, hunting and disease had decimated the population. 

But after decades of intensive monitoring and conservation, a 2016 survey found the Virunga population had grown to 604 animals. The finding prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature to change the mountain gorilla’s status from “critically endangered” to “endangered.” 

In 2011, the other mountain gorilla population, 31 miles north in the Bwindi-Sarambwe ecosystem, was thought to host 400 gorillas.

The new 2018 census of the Bwindi-Sarambwe population collected around 2,000 fecal samples that were then sent to a lab for genetic analysis. The lab work revealed at least 459 genetically distinct individuals. 

“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,” Kirsten Gilardi, of the Gorilla Doctors and who worked on the census’ genetic analysis, said in a statement.

Despite encouraging reports like this one, the herculean efforts required to grow the mountain gorilla population are difficult to sustain and do not point to an easy road ahead. Mountain gorillas remain “conservation dependent,” Tara Stoinski of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which supported the census, told Mongabay.

“The really exciting news is that they’re increasing,” Stoinski said. “The other side of that is they still face a lot of challenges.”

Published on Dec 18, 2019