Category Archives: tracking gorillas

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

Volunteering at ITFC

I have always believed that volunteerism is an act of Heroism. The four months spell as a volunteer at ITFC has had a great impact in my life. As a social worker, this is an opportunity for creating social cohesion and capital that are important for my career development.

It has always been my dream to work with local communities. My volunteer ship at ITFC has made this dream a reality. I have recently been assisting on the Batwa cultural values project as a research assistant. Through this project, I have been privileged to interact with Batwa communities.

Marion conducting interviews at one of the Batwa cultural sites in Mgahinga Mountain National Park

My fieldwork involves camping in  forest and with in Batwa villages. Fieldwork was initially challenging as it involves walking long distances in a rugged terrain and climbing steep hills.  Over time, I have found fieldwork very interesting and enjoyable. Interacting and socializing with local communities is very exciting. The Batwa men have always been so caring that they always give me a hand during the long and tough mountain climbs.

Marion being helped by a Mutwa man up the steep hill

Fieldwork comes with its benefits such as enjoying wild honey and berries during field trips. On the other hand, encountering a buffalo  during a  recent field execution in Mgahinga Mountain National park was very scary. I can’t forget the day we came back from the community interviews and we found our tents blown away by  wind. Frederick and the camp keeper rescued some of the tents. One tent was completely destroyed beyond repair. Tarpaulins were also torn into pieces. I have never seen such strong wind in my life. I was awake the whole night scared to be carried away in the middle of the night by strong blowing winds. Luckily, no tent was blown, and we shifted our camp to the next community. Till then, I will bring you more exciting stories from  Bwindi. Great to be part of ITFC community.

Marion enjoying wild honey with the Batwa.

Marion at ITFC

Kind regards,

Marion

Tracking Mountain gorillas with Jonathan Kingdon and Laura Snook

We joined our friends Jonathan Kingdon and Laura Snook – see previous blog for background – for gorilla tracking to the Bitukura group just recently. It was only the four of us and Stephen from UWA as our guide. The morning was sunny and we did not need to walk far from the Ruhija ranger post. A radio call from the trackers told us that the gorillas were close, but… there were also elephants in the same area. Apparently the gorillas were avoiding them. We had to be careful too as meeting elephants in dense forest is not advised. We had to skirt around the valley and wait.

Before setting off: Raymond Kato (Warden Research), Jonathan Kingdon, Miriam, Laura Snook and Stephen

Finally we got an “all clear” and we moved to the gorilla group. They had been only a couple of hundred meters away. They didn’t react to our arrival other than to glance briefly at us. They were peacefully chewing on dead wood and the usual shoots and leaves. There was no sign of the elephants.

Over the next hour we had a close view of most of the 14 Bitukura gorillas. Sometimes a good look meant hanging precariously on the thick vegetation that covers these steep slopes.

‘Silverback’ watching a Blackback!

Jonathan closely observed every move of the gorillas in view. He recalled that “In those days (the 1960s), when I was surveying and collecting here and in Mgahinga, gorillas had not yet been habituated and you would at most see a glimpse of a large black animal at a distance, hear grunts and chest beats but never had a chance to observe their behaviour close up for more than a moment”. This was a special experience even for a very experienced naturalist!

Happy gorilla trackers and rangers, on their return from Bitukura

Big smiles… after being presented with certificates

There had been a time, two decades ago, when the habituation of gorillas had been controversial. Habituation and daily visits would cause stress, make the animals vulnerable to poachers, and bring them into regular contact with human disease. But habituation also allows the gorillas to be seen and to provide a foundation for a major tourist industry. We asked Jonathan what he thought. He was impressed:

“I would not want to say that every gorilla group should be habituated, and be turned into a commercial commodity, but I am fully in favour of very tightly regulated tourism which allows people to have this experience. And I am very impressed by what I saw: it was strictly limited to one hour which I think is essential to maintain an acceptable level of stress of the gorillas. Careful judgement is essential. If, for any reason, a particular group appears harassed by the attention, then I think it should stop for a while while people try and understand what is happening, which individuals are being stressed and why. I think it is a question of endless learning, I do not think you will ever have answers to these things in a definitive way. It has got to remain flexible and judged against the ultimate objective — ensuring the welling of the gorillas.”

UWA’s guest-book now has the following entry from Jonathan: “The new skills with habituating gorillas are wonderful to experience. Stephen and his gang have transformed the experience. A far cry from my many trips in the 1960s”

Come and see the gorillas for yourself! According to Jonathan and Laura, this is an experience no-one should miss. It something everyone should do at least once in their lives.

As Jonathan said: “We people do not have a future if we do not respect gorillas and nature in general. And I think the required awareness is greatly enhanced by watching gorillas. I would press anybody from anywhere to make this a pilgrimage. Make a point in your life time to go and see gorillas.”

Miriam and Douglas