Threats to the survival of mountain gorillas
The primary threat to mountain gorillas comes from forest clearance and degradation, as the region’s growing human population struggles to eke out a living. Conversion of land for agriculture and competition for limited natural resources such as firewood lead to varying degrees of deforestation. The only way to maintain gorilla habitat is to develop alternative economic activities that allow people to meet their daily needs, so that they see gorillas not as competitors, but as a means of improving their own situation.
Gorillas are closely related to humans, with similar anatomical and physiological features. This makes them vulnerable to many of the same diseases. Because the gorillas have not developed the necessary immunities, first time exposure to an illness or virus that is relatively innocuous to humans may devastate an entire population. Gorillas live in small groups that may never recover from a sudden fall in numbers brought on by disease. Any human contact is potentially harmful, even life-threatening.
Tourists who visit the gorillas are instructed to keep their distance, but conservationists, scientists, rangers, poachers, militia groups and local communities also pose threats. Some gorillas already suffer from common skin diseases like scabies and mange, which can quickly spread from group to group as families interact. Debris left behind in the park by refugees, poachers and the military is being cleared in order to minimize the contamination risk to wildlife, and a health education programme is helping to combat the threat of disease
In the first two decades after their discovery, European and American scientists and trophy hunters killed over 50 mountain gorillas. To this day, poaching continues to jeopardize the gorillas’ survival. Poaching of mountain gorillas for food is extremely rare. It is now largely the result of unselective hunting with snares, which are set to catch antelope, bush pigs and other wildlife but occasionally kill or injure gorillas. In the ’60s and ’70s gorillas were poached for sale to foreigners as trophies and captive specimens. None survived in captivity. Recent events have shown that hunting of mountain gorillas in order to capture babies ‘commissioned’ by unscrupulous dealers remains a very real threat.
In 2002, poaching attempts occurred in all three countries, two of them successful. In Rwanda, two adult females in Susa Group were killed and one baby stolen. A second infant, Ubuzima, was found next to its dead mother and reintroduced to the group. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), four gorillas from an unhabituated group were killed. A three-year old infant, Mvuyekure, believed to be part of this group, was found alive in Rwanda, but died later in captivity. Park guards thwarted two further attempts, in Rwanda and Bwindi respectively. Security throughout the parks has since been increased. In 2004 another mountain gorilla infant was confiscated from poachers by Rwanda authorities. This infant is currently under the care of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Programme (MGVP) in Kinigi, Rwanda. In June 2007 an adult female in Kabirizi group (DRC) was shot and her two month old infant recovered. The infant is currently under the care of MGVP in Goma, DRC..
The region’s ongoing conflict and civil unrest are an ever-present risk, while illegal mining in DRC has had a devastating effect on wildlife, including gorillas. At the same time, weak institutional management structures, a feeling of disenfranchisement among local communities, and insufficient regional collaboration all pose serious challenges
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