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Save the Gorillas

The situation is even more dramatic for the mountain gorillas, whose number is reduced to about 750 members found in only two forests in Africa, between Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. Excessive demographic pressure over the forests hosting the gorillas, extensive deforestation in fertile soils for increasing agricultural crops, the phenomenon of structural insecurity especially in the Virungas and trade related poaching are the greatest reasons for the almost disappearing of the mountain gorillas.

The gorillas in Bwindi forest as well as in Virunga forest especially during the 60th and the 70th were killed for their meat or for capturing the young ones to sell to zoos or as pets. Gorilla hands and skulls were sold as souvenirs. During the 1970s 40 per cent of the land of Volcanoes National Park was cleared for farming and for pyrethrum, destroying the habitat of the gorillas. At that time, it was a common perception that the forest, habitat of the gorillas, was useless and should have been converted to farming: “There is not one Rwandan who could value gorillas more than his own people; we need the land of the park for farming as the park gives us nothing, it is just a place for you foreigners to play with your gorillas” (the community leader of Mukingo in 1978, from “In the Kingdom of Gorillas”, 2001, B. Weber and A. Vedder).

The first studies about the mountain gorillas were carried out in the Virungas by George Schaller, who also made the first survey on their actual number in 1960, counting a maximum of 500 gorillas in the park.

Dian Fossey arrived in Rwanda in 1967. Her main work was research as well as organizing anti-poaching patros units in the park. Dian Fossey gave her life for the cause of the gorillas when was brutally killed on 27 December 1985.

The turning point in the history of gorilla conservation is 1978 in Rwanda. Digit the silverback of Group 4, one of the most habituated to researchers was killed by poachers and, few months later were killed Uncle Bert, Macho and 3 others members of the same family. In 1978 the gorilla survey counted only 252 individuals. The British Fauna and Flora Preservation Society decided to start The Mountain Gorilla Project, on the wave of the international condemnation over the killings of Rwandan gorillas. Dian Fossey herself in 1978 opened the Digit Fund with the specific objective to fight against poaching. The Mountain Gorilla Fund considered establishing cooperation with the ORTPN in order to halt poaching, start a sensitization program to change people’s attitude towards the park and the gorillas, moreover starting a controlled tourist program which could raise political support through the revenues from tourist activities. By then end of 1980s the number of gorillas slightly increased to 320 individuals and gorilla tourism became a key resource for Virunga.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International is the renamed "Digit Fund" and it is still the most important fund for the protection of gorillas. It has the objective to help national parks that are home to gorillas in Rwanda and Congo through direct protection and training African staff. The fund has its own trackers and anti-poaching teams, who work closely with the Rwandan national park authorities to protect the Rwandan portion of the mountain gorilla’s habitat, in Volcanoes National Park. The activities include removing snares and collecting information on illegal practices, such as cattle grazing and firewood collection. The training for staff covers all aspects of the parks and their conservation, including general conservation issues, primate ecology and behavior and botany. Following poaching attacks in 2002, the Karisoke Research Center (which replaced the Old Karisoke Center) increased the amount of time the tracking teams are with the gorilla from half to full days.

We believe as Destination Jungle that if we have to concretely plan for the conservation of the mountain gorillas, the key policy would be to support their habitat and to expand the forests as well as limiting the human pressure over the gorillas’ sanctuaries.