Mountain gorillas in the Virungas CMS STATUS Appendix I CMS INSTRUMENT(S) Agreement on the Conservation of Gorillas and Their Habitats
Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covers more than 7,800 km2
, including both forested volcanic slopes and lowland savannahs in eastern Democratic Republic
of Congo (DRC). It is home to a large number of endangered species and nearly 200, or one-quarter, of the world’s remaining Mountain Gorillas (UNEP, 2010a).
Threats to migratory pathways and critical sites The gorillas in DRC are threatened by poachers and habitat loss, mainly by the commercial burning of trees to make charcoal. The park has been occupied by various competing militias since the early 1990s. They have attacked the park headquarters and killed rangers and gorillas alike and have been heavily involved in the making and marketing of charcoal. Using prisoners or forced labour for the work, militias have been estimated to make over 28 million USD a year by illegally selling charcoal from the Virungas. Not only is the park damaged in this process, but the proceeds fund yet more conflict. In August and September 2009, rangers destroyed some 1000 charcoal-making kilns inside the park, but it is a dangerous business. In the past decade more than 200 rangers have been killed in the five parks on the DRC border, out of a ranger force of ca. 2,000 men (UNEP, 2010a).
Opportunities for ecological networks Despite operating in the middle of one of the world’s worst conflict zones, collaboration between DRC, Rwanda and Uganda allows the gorillas to move freely across borders and has enabled the mountain gorilla population slowly to recover, although they remain critically endangered. The wider Virunga population was estimated to be 400–500 in the 1950s, fell to 250 by 1981, but successful conservation measures led to its recovery. Despite the turbulent history of the region over the past 20 years, in late 2003 the first census since 1989 revealed that the population in the Virunga mountains had grown by 17 per cent to 380 (UNEP, 2010a). By 2010, it had reached 480, a 3.7 per cent annual growth rate (IGCP, 2010). Transboundary collaboration in the Virungas has yielded
very positive results, which is clearly demonstrated by the fact that mountain gorilla numbers have increased over the past 15 years despite the conflict, while other mammal populations have decreased. The success can be attributed to the enhanced collaboration between the three countries as well as the gorillas’ impressive revenue-generating potential for the region (Lanjouw et al. 2001, Plumptre, 2007).
This success encouraged the three governments to extend their cooperation to the wider Virunga landscape, including the creation of a transboundary network of protected areas and a core secretariat to coordinate activities, established in Kigali, Rwanda in 2008.
International action for the mountain gorillas shows how critical transboundary collaboration can be, but also how a species can survive against all odds even amidst a conflict zone.