Despite the decline in the number of mountain gorillas in recent years, research carried out in Rwanda has shown that the species is not at risk of extinction as earlier indicated by some conservationists.
The research, which was carried out by Rwanda Development Board (RDB) and several conservation partners to establish the impact of population decline and ways to avoid the species extinction, aimed at aiding conservation efforts.
Statistics from RDB indicate that the number of mountain gorillas living in the Virunga Volcanic Mountain range had plummeted to 253 in 1981. The current population is estimated at around 480.
This is the first in-depth analysis revealing genetic impact of long-term population decline and the species adaptation to surviving in small numbers.
The research, published on Thursdaylast week says that the species’ chances of extinction were slim despite their small numbers as gorillas had over the years adapted to living in small numbers.
The researchers used blood samples collected over several years by RDB, and conservation groups such as Gorilla Doctors, which treats wild gorillas.
They discovered that mountain gorillas have survived in small numbers for thousands of years.
“Using recently-developed methods, researchers were able to determine how the size of the population has changed over the past million years.
According to their calculations, the average population of mountain gorillas has been in hundreds for thousands of years; far longer than previously thought, an excerpt from the research journal read.
Dr Yali Xue, one of the researchers and authors of the journal from Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, a leading animal research centre, said the research findings had helped eliminate fears of the near extinction of mountain gorillas.
“We worried that the dramatic decline in the 1980s would be catastrophic for mountain gorillas in the long term but our genetic analyses suggest that gorillas have been coping with small population sizes for thousands of years,” Dr Xue said.
It is expected that the findings will make it possible to identify the origins of gorillas that have been illegally captured or killed as well as enable more gorillas to be returned to the wild and will make it easier to bring prosecutions against those who poach gorillas.
Dr Aylwyn Scally, an author from the Department of Genetics at the University of Cambridge, said that the new understanding of genetic diversity and demographic history among gorilla populations had provided researchers with valuable insight into how apes adapt genetically to living in small populations.
The research findings follow commendation by renowned American wildlife conservationist Jack Hanna, who was recently in the country for the conservation efforts saying they had so far managed to eliminate poaching.
He said the increased conservation efforts would lead to the emergence of other economic activities that depend on wildlife, such as lodges.
He called for increased public awareness campaigns on the importance of wildlife to increase the general public’s participation in conservation.