Rwandans have a strange relationship with Gorillas, on the one hand we find them strange and ugly but on the other we are happy with the income and publicity that they generate. I would even go on to say they are arguably our national symbol and Brand: Rwanda has used the gorilla to symbolize the revival of the nation. Rwanda has been the driving force behind the push to preserve this species, the geographic location of the habitat of gorillas has left them caught between a number of conflicts from Rwanda, to Congo and Uganda.
It is hard to explain to a Rwandan the level of affection felt for the mountain gorilla in the Western world. Many Europeans see Gorillas as our closest living relative, they share over 98-99% of our DNA but they are fascinating in their own right.
No Mountain Gorilla has ever been bred in a zoo, they die when they go below a certain altitude and are so dependent on a unique eco-system that they cannot live outside the Virungas and the surrounding mountains. As we speak it is estimated that 780 mountain gorillas exist in the wild, 480 live in Rwanda/Congo on the Virunga Massif, some 302 in Uganda.
This number is a massive improvement from times when only 400 were known to exist in the world. Now the emphasis has moved past merely preserving the mountain gorilla to removing it from the endangered list altogether. This will take a massive effort to expand the population and the range of the species, a recent scientific census was carried out and the data collated is still not fully analysed but should provide a detailed picture of the state of our gorilla population. It has counted numbers, but has also taken genetic material and stool samples to assess the genetic and dietary variety.
In a country like Rwanda, conservation as ever is a delicate balancing act, between the needs of people and the environment. The continuing growth of the gorilla population will create the need to expand the natural habitat of the mountain gorilla. For now measures being taken are preventing poaching and snaring, diversifying the diet, creating corridors to allow genetic mixing and creating buffer zones to prevent encroachment. Only then can we look at expanding the forest in which the Mountain Gorillas live, gorillas are safe for now but we need urbanization and economic development to pull people off the land and thus protect the habitat.
It is amazing to think that only 8 gorilla families provide Rwanda with millions of dollars and a global image. The survival of the mountain gorilla is dependent on the continued dedication of countless conservationists, the awareness of the public and peace in the region.
The continued conflict in Eastern Congo has meant that many gorillas have been killed for meat, while others have fled to Rwanda. Much like Rwanda, the mountain gorilla has been to the edge of extinction but has survived and bounced back, maybe they are an appropriate national symbol.