Category Archives: chimpanzee

Bwindi Mountain gorillas at 400

The results for the fourth Bwindi Mountain gorilla census were announced yesterday by the Uganda Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). It is now official that Bwindi is a home to 400 gorillas, close to half of the world’s population that is estimated at 880 individuals. This result has taken a staggering twenty months of intensive gorilla search, counting and genetic analysis. Pictures generously provided by Theresa Laverty, MPI-EVA research assistant.

Rukina from the Kyagurilo research group, Bwindi-Ruhija

Conducted by the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the 2011 Bwindi Mountain gorilla census was an effort of a big collaboration involving many organizations that work in Mountain gorilla conservation including; l’Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), the Rwanda Development Board, International Gorilla Conservation Programme, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA), the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, Conservation Through Public Health, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. WWF-Sweden funded the census with more support from Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe e.V., the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Earlier today, I had a privilege to chat with the director of the Bwindi Mountain gorilla project, Dr. Martha Robbins. Ladies and gentlemen, lets hear from the horse’s mouth (the lead scientist) for the 2011 Bwindi Mountain gorilla census. Please find the details of our Q&A chat in BM and MR below:

BM: Thanks a lot Martha for allowing talking to me after a very short notice.

MR: Sure


BM: May you please tell our readers what Mountain gorillas are? What makes them different from other primates, and great apes in general?

MR: The Mountain gorillas are one of the two and four gorilla species and sub-species respectively. They have many differences compared to chimpanzees and Bonobos. Their bodies are much bigger…actually they are the biggest apes.


BM: Bwindi is a home to 400 Mountain gorillas, close to half of the World’s population. This is the highest number of gorillas ever recorded in Bwindi. Why the big difference in numbers compared to the previous census?

MR: We count gorillas using the sweep method, where teams intensively walk through the forest in a dense network of trails searching for gorillas. Analyzing for the genetic make-up (genetic analysis) of feces allows us to differentiate if the gorilla groups encountered during the sweeps are the same or different. Genetic analysis creates a genetic identification for every gorilla that we find feces from, and this helps us not to over or under count the gorillas.

One limitation of the single sweep means that we can only count or do genetic analysis on the gorillas we find. The assumption that we find all the gorillas in a single sweep is not necessarily accurate. This time around we did two sweeps, meaning that there are some groups we found only during the 1st sweep and some groups only during the 2nd sweep. Genetic analysis was later done for both sweeps. This is the only way that we can know for sure that the groups from both sweeps are the same or different.


BM: What does this result mean to the conservation world, and mountain gorilla conservation in particular.

MR: This result means several things. First of all, the Mountain gorillas are the only sub-species of the great ape where we see the population actually increasing, and that provides some hope for conservation not only for the Mountain gorillas but of other endangered great apes and other primates. The increase and the hope that this population is sustainable depends only on the continuation of extremely intensive conservation efforts both inside the park and also with the neighboring communities living outside the park, Uganda as a country and in terms of international support at all levels.


BM: Any additional remarks for our readers?

MR: Lastly I want to say that the end result from a census is one number so it may seem easy to determine, but the censuses are only possible through a very big collaboration among many organizations, involving many individuals. Some where between 80-100 people were involved in last census.  These censuses are a way to really bring together all organizations that work in Mountain gorilla conservation, and this one has resulted in some very good news about how all the efforts of all these organizations are paying off. I thank all the organizations mentioned above for their efforts that made this census a great success.

Kanywani and Twijykye of the Kyagurilo group, Bwindi-Ruhija

Best regards,

Badru Mugerwa

98.25% – the gorilla in our genes and the human in theirs

The site has been having a few problems the last few weeks. When I last put this up a few weeks ago it got lost. Let’s try again (again) and hope ….

Have you heard that the gorilla genome has just been sequenced? There has been some news coverage. Technical stuff certainly, but it offers interesting general insights too.

Mountain gorilla - Virungas, Rwanda Douglas Sheil

Closer than they look? Mountain gorillas in the Virungas.

The researchers sequenced the DNA from four animals including three western lowland gorillas and one eastern lowland gorilla. These animals are the last great-apes to have had this treatment and join humans, orang-utans, chimpanzees and bonobos.

Based on the genetic sequence data the human genome is closest to that of the chimpanzees and bonobos (these animals are closer to each other than to humans): the difference is only 1.37% in the raw genetic information. The orang-utan is almost twice as distinct with a 3.4% difference to humans. The new data places the gorilla in-between these other great apes with a 1.75% difference to humans.

Any surprises from the new gorilla data? Well, while the chimpanzees and bonobos are closer overall, it appears that whole tracts of our genomes, about 15%, are more similar to those of the gorilla than to any of the other great apes.

Mountain gorilla - Virungas, Rwanda Douglas Sheil

Only 1.75% divides us: a Mountain gorilla family in the Virungas.

The new gorilla data also suggest that ancestral people (and chimps) separated from ancestral gorillas about 10 million years ago. (Genetic data suggests humans and chimps separated more recently, perhaps less than 5 million years ago). Ancestral eastern and western lowland gorillas likely parted ways from each other much more recently: perhaps less than 500,000 years ago.

Its worth pointing out that these % numbers are based on very simple summary measures: they tell us nothing about just what the differences and similarities are, mean or imply … but methods to do that are improving. The new study offers some initial results. For example the researchers have identified evidence of unusually rapid evolution in several gorilla genes. These include genes involved in generating tough skin and possibly related to the hard knuckle pads that gorillas use for walking. Genes involved in hearing and brain development are also reported to have undergone rapid change in gorillas – we used to flatter ourselves that the similar changes observed in us were somehow unique to humans and reflected our language and cognitive skills, but we were wrong.

Perhaps we’re not so special after all. Our cousin gorillas wouldn’t think so.

Best wishes


“Hey calm down, It’s our world too… ” Bwindi chimps cry out

Frankly, I don’t know who makes the wildest or loudest noise to the world out there. I have had the opportunity to visit the mountain gorillas and witnessed them making the deafening “call me boss” noises. Similarly, I have had to endure several evening hours of “hey this is my territory” screams of chimpanzees, all in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Bwindi). Cute conversations going on in the jungle every other day between mothers, fathers, juveniles and babies have continuously reminded me of how important every other animal is to the general ecosystem of the park.

To some extent I feel a current of shame rising up in me as some of these animals howl out their evenings in the jungle. Not that I would love them to spend a night with me in my relatively warm bed, not at all! My observation here is the amount of attention a few species (read mountain gorillas) may be getting compared to the other. Indeed only a handful of Bwindi visitors get to know that there is even a thriving population of chimps in the park. Yet an estimated 350-400 chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthi Eastern Chimpanzee) live in Bwindi. It is only in Bwindi that we have both the mountain gorillas and the chimpanzees ranging in one habitat in Africa.

In my few months working in Bwindi and over five years in tourism, I have observed how the gorillas seem to get more “marketable” over the years than any the other primate species. Not only in terms of research studies commissioned in respect to each of these species, but also in terms of awareness and promotion for tourism and attention from conservation practitioners.

The eastern chimpanzee is classified as “Endangered” on IUCN’s Red Listed species occurring in South-West Uganda. Isn’t is a shame therefore that we don’t have any studies about the population trends, demographics, distribution of chimps in Bwindi?

Luckily from our camera trap fieldwork in the park we managed to get a few photos of these chimps and we continue encountering their nests frequently as we walk in the park.

somewhere in Bwindi as caught by camera trap

somewhere in Bwindi as caught by our camera trap

Wouldn’t it nice one day to see a group scientists embarking on a census activity for chimps in Bwindi or better still group of tourist enthusiastically paying for their tickets for tracking chimps in Bwindi?

Well, until then, Bwindi chimps are crying; “hey calm down, it’s our world too”.

Let’s hear what you think.


Our forest candid-camera network gets global attention

As regular readers know several of our activities here in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park are part of, and contribute to, larger research networks. The TEAM network supports our camera trapping, our tree monitoring plots and our automatic climate station. These TEAM activities are all still quite new at ITFC so we should celebrate when we can see our network getting recognition for its value to conservation and science.

A recent mult-author publication about the TEAM cameras has been getting a lot of media coverage. Rather than repeating it let me give you a few links so you can see the pictures and text for yourselves. There are some familiar images as well as many from other forests around the world. So here is a brief selection from several hundred sites that appear to be running the story: National Geographic, Wired Science and IBTimes.

Take a look and please feel free to share your views.

Best wishes


More from the camera trap – identification parade

In the last blog I shared our first camera trap pictures of one of Bwindi’s elephants. But that camera was packed with other pictures. It’s fun running through them. There are more than 350 of them.  Not all are identifiable.  But rather than making you wait let me share a few of the clearer ones and allow you to see how many you can identify for yourself.

Here they are. Any ideas?












Best wishes