How many gorillas live in the Virunga Massif? This is a question that has not been answered since the last census of the habitat in 2003. The Virunga Volcanoes is one of only two locations where mountain gorillas live.
The last census in 2003 resulted in an estimate of 380 individual gorillas. For the past eight weeks the Wildlife and National Park Authorities of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC collaborated on this important, transboundary census of the Virunga populations of mountain gorillas.
I was given the opportunity to participate in the census this year as a team leader. This was a very meaningful experience for me; participation in this important aspect of gorilla conservation complimented my work as a Gorilla Doctor. I was one of 80 transboundary team members working on this project.
The objective of the census was to establish an updated total population size in the Virunga Massif and to compare it to the previous censuses in 2003 and 1989. We also wanted to determine the level of the human disturbance, survey for diseases and take fecal samples for genetic analysis.
The 2010 census started with a three days workshop where participants from all three countries met to learn census methods and to collect our equipment for the job.
We were to camp in the national park for two weeks in teams of eight, move through the forest following transects using maps and GPS positions, and count every gorilla night nest we discovered. We were also collecting fecal samples from each nest for disease screening and genetic analysis.
On March 15, my team walked into the forest to our first camp and installed tents at our camping site with the help of porters from Kampande.
After five days work in the forest, we moved to another camp in Mukecuru area for two days. Our last camp was at KARISOKE, the beautiful area that was the original research station of Dian Fossey.
Despite the abundant rain, the cold and the mud everywhere, the motivation of the team didn’t diminish. We knew we had to do hard work. The success of the census this year was our goal, and we knew the importance of the program.
We were happy for the support from people around the world with conservation NGOs, helping to make this program successful.
We were ready for the challenges! I worked with a great team of people from Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (MGNP), Uganda, Parc National des Virungas (PNVi) Democratic Republic of Congo, and Volcanoes National park (PNV), Rwanda. They all love the animals, and are very interested in protecting gorillas and their habitat.
Each morning we followed our transect and when we found a gorilla trail we followed it, and when we reached the gorilla night nests we counted each nest. We also measured the size of the feces which was necessary to determine the age of the individual using that nest.
We also removed a few snares that had been set for trapping antelopes and further recorded where these illegal activities occurred.
We observed many wild animals as well (buffalo, bush-buck, hyrax and many birds).
We also tracked and collected samples from a total of six gorilla groups and feces from three lone silverbacks in the two sectors we worked.
This program also greatly enhanced our health physically and mentally; the ravines were steep and muddy, but I was a very happy man while I hiked—working in the field is my favorite part as a Gorilla Doctor.
During the gorilla census we discovered beautiful vegetation, innumerable streams, and crossed crazy and very deep ravines, although sometimes we were forced to avoid ravines for the security of the team.
The forest was beautiful, and we moved through bamboo, Hypercum, Hagenia, sub-alpine and alpine areas. The Sub-alpine was amazing with a mixture of giant lobelia. Even spending many years working in this area, I had not had this special opportunity to truly appreciate the parks amazing vegetation.
We are proud to have achieved so much during this year’s Mountain Gorilla Census, thank to a team of people whose dedication did not waiver.
Support from the Rwanda Development Board, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature and the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
The exercise was also supported by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (a coalition of AWF, WWF and FFI), the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
With promising results, we are hopeful to receive at the end of the study estimates of an increasing population of mountain gorillas in the Great Virunga Massif.
All results of this work will be vital in looking at population trends and determining the best collaborative way forward for mountain gorilla conservation.
Dr. Jean Felix Kinani, is a Field Veterinarian working with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) in Musanze district in Rwanda’s North Province.