Preliminary Report on a Survey of the Southern Itombwe Massif, Eastern Zaire
Gorilla Journal - December 1996

The Itombwe Forest is the largest, most diverse and, from a conservation standpoint, probably the most important of the montane forests of Africa's Albertine Rift. There are three birds which are endemic to Itombwe: the Congo bay (Itombwe) owl Phodilus prigoginei, Schouteden's swift Schoutedenapus schoutedeni, and Prigogine's nightjar Caprimulgus prigoginei. Itombwe is now ranked as the single most important forest for bird conservation on continental Africa. As of our survey, the mammal list stood at 56 species. Most notable among these are gorilla, chimpanzee, elephant, leopard, bongo and golden cat. Two endemic shrews occur.

The Survey

The main objectives of the survey were to: 1) determine the current distribution and status of Grauer's gorilla and chimpanzees in the Itombwe Massif, 2) evaluate the impact of human activities on these and other large mammal species, and 3) assess options for conservation in the region. In addition to its field teams, the expedition benefited by the participation of an IZCN (Institut Zairois pour la Conservation de la Nature) education team led by Yuma Mkeyo and Radar Birhashirwa. The education team was instrumental in establishing good working relations with local populations in the areas we worked. A "bird survey team" conducted research in the extreme south-east corner of Itombwe.


A total of 252 species of birds were found during this survey. A few additonal species (owls, nightjars, crakes) will likely be identified once their tape recorded vocalizations are reviewed. Twenty-five bird species were found which were not on the Itombwe list. One species, the Congo bay owl, deserves particular mention as it is perhaps Africa's least known bird. It now appears that it is a bird of the montane forest-grassland mosaic and gallery montane forest. These are habitat types which are poorly represented in Equatorial Africa but which are widespread in Itombwe.

A total of 35 species of mammals other than primates were also recorded. Elephants were present but in very low numbers, probably as a result of considerable recent poaching. Thirteen species of primates are known to occur in Itombwe. During this survey we added three species of primates to the list (Otolemur crassicaudatus, Galago matschiei, Galago thomasi) and confirmed the presence of eight others. One additional species, l'Hoest's monkey Cercopithecus lhoesti, was reported by hunters.

Primates in the Itombwe Forest, Eastern Zaire.

Gorillas are localized in Itombwe to geographically discrete areas, and are apparently absent, except possibly for dispersing animals, from large areas. Prior to our expedition, 17 "gorilla areas", ranging in size from less than 100 km2 to several hundred square kilometers, were identified in the 1959 survey of George Schaller and John Emlen. The WCS/IZCN expedition was able to visit 12 of these areas. Gorillas or their signs were observed in all but four. Gorillas are likely now absent from most of the five areas which this expedition did not survey. Significantly, we were able to document the presence of two, previously unknown, "gorilla areas" in Itombwe and map a major extension to a third. At this point, we can not provide an estimate of the number of gorillas actually in Itombwe. An analysis of the data is continuing.

The highly localized distribution of gorillas in Itombwe may be linked to habitat requirements. Gorillas were found at elevations from less than 1,100 m in the transition forest zone to over 3,000 m near Lac Lungwe. Although most of the sign and sightings of gorillas were in secondary vegetation, this species was also present in agricultural fields, at the savannah border and on the edge of human settlements. We also found gorilla signs in the bamboo zone, but at low densities, suggesting that this habitat, which in Itombwe covers more area than in any other place in Africa, may not be preferred by gorillas, or perhaps is used only seasonally. Gorilla sign was notably rare or entirely absent throughout much of the primary high canopy forest.

In contrast to gorillas, chimpanzees are more widely distributed, occurring in primary forest as well as in secondary vegetation. We did not find signs of chimpanzees in the bamboo. Although we are not yet prepared to provide estimates of chimpanzee numbers for Itombwe, they are clearly more abundant than gorillas. In addition, they appear to occur in larger groups than gorillas.

Conservation: Status and Options

Despite a low human population density over much of Itombwe, the fauna is at high risk from well established and growing commercialized hunting which provides meat for markets as far off as Kamituga and Uvira. The impact of this hunting has been devastating on duikers and many primates. This is especially the case for northern Itombwe, but hunters are rapidly expanding into less heavily exploited areas in the south. We expect that similar depletion of the fauna will follow here as well. Gorillas and chimpanzees are hunted for meat by some hunters. Other hunters, however, said they do not hunt them, citing the offical protection status of these two species and/or dietary taboos. Even these hunters, however, said that both apes are occasionally killed in snares set for other animals and that some gorillas are killed because they are agressive towards humans, especially in the gardens and around villages. We were shown a number of skins and skulls of gorillas by villagers throughout the area surveyed.

Large areas of Itombwe's natural habitats do indeed remain intact, but current trends towards deforestation, exacerbated by a famine caused by corn blight in the highlands, are extremely worrying. Particularly vulnerable is the species rich montane gallery forest/alpine meadow complex, where the woodlands are under attack by the farmers and the meadows are over-grazed by Tutsi pastoralists who have made their way into this region over the last 50 years.

Creating incentives and initiatives for the conservation of Itombwe in the face of growing insecurity stemming from the civil wars in neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi will be difficult, especially since there is also growing ethnic tension between Tutsi pastoralists and Bembe farmers on the Plateau. Nevertheless, the IZCN education team reported an interest on the part of several of the Bembe chiefs to control hunting in their traditional chiefdoms. This suggests that there may be options for new approaches to conservation, such as hunting cooperatives which are jointly managed by the chiefs and conservation NGOs. In contrast to the farmers, few pastoralists expressed much interest in wildlife or forest conservation. Both Bembe and Tutsi, for different reasons, were involved in activites leading to rapid loss of natural habitats.

Ethnic strife may continue in the region. Ironically, this may cause some areas to be depopulated as people flee conflict. This could actually lower current deforestation and possibly market hunting, thus providing a window of recovery to badly overexploited land and wildlife.

The need for conservation of Itombwe's tremendous biodiversity is fast becoming critical. At this point, a full evaluation of the options and needs must await establishment of long-term projects on the ground. Much remains to be documented of the region's flora and fauna, and realistic conservation options will depend upon these findings. Equally necessary are projects which can establish appropriate educational and institutional-building capacities and put conservation into action. However, there can be no return by assessment teams to the region, or evaluation of conservation options until security returns. Recommendations at that point would depend upon the new political orientation of the region.

Thomas M. Butynski, John A. Hart and Omari Ilambu

Should We Consider the Translocation of Gorilla Populations?
Gorilla Journal - December 1996

In our last issue, Esteban Sarmiento remarked that it may become necessary soon to think about translocating small gorilla populations to other areas because they are in danger of extinction. Such an undertaking would be very risky and costly. But these are not the only problems that would arise. First of all, many questions should be answered, like:

Our aim is to contribute to a discussion which should start soon. Therefore, several experts were asked for their opinion about this subject.

Angela Meder

Considering the popularity of gorilla tourism, translocation should have been given serious thought long ago. By allowing tourists access only to captive-born animals reintroduced to natural habitats, any ill-effects tourism may have on the highly endangered gorilla populations can be avoided. As it is, it may be necessary to use translocation to save natural populations that have been jeopardized because of tourism.

Growth of human populations surrounding parks and overtaxing the natural buffer zones protecting endemic fauna and flora, increased water use (bathing drinking and voiding) within and around the park, and increased exposure of gorillas to humans from all over the world are all products of tourism which can have serious health consequences. The case of Gombe stream reserve where chimpanzees are now crippled by polio (a water born disease) and suffer yearly bouts of fatal epidemics illustrates the magnitude of this threat quite well.

Unfortunately, at the moment if we needed to translocate gorillas we have little of the information necessary to insure long term success. We need to know more about the qualities of the gorilla's environment and of the plants and animals that maintain it. Gorillas may not presently be using all of the environments that may be suitable to them. We must do research that allows us to predict based on what the animal's needs are, what environments will support them. In this regard, we must also further research differences between gorilla populations, and their corresponding needs.

What we know of the social system of eastern gorillas suggest that it may be best to move them into uninhabited areas as a group together with a single young solitary male. Into areas already populated by gorillas, it would be best to introduce young adult females. There are a number of drugs, with antidotes administered through a dart gun which can subdue animals for transport. These are relatively safe, if the animal's body-functions are monitored.

Unfortunately, the money, and subsequent political bureaucracy that gorilla conservation attracts worldwide seriously challenges coordination and effective decision making on the part of "true experts". Presently such coordination may be the greatest obstacle when survival of some gorilla groups may ultimately depend on translocation.

Esteban Sarmiento

In 1986, Juichi Yamagiwa and his team published an article in Primate Conservation after censusing the gorilla population in Masisi, eastern Zaire, and made the following recommendations:

The gorillas and their habitats must be separated immediately and completely from areas of human activity. If the gorillas maintain their present contact with the local people, they can easily become infected by human diseases. If the gorillas continue to range within such isolated habitats, inbreeding will have deleterious effects on their reproductive success. If such complete separation cannot be expected, relocation of the gorillas should be planned as soon as possible. In this case, consideration must be given to the most suitable habitats for them as well as to the effects of relocation on the animals themselves, the fauna and flora, and, especially, other gorilla populations.

The results of our survey suggest that the ecological and external characters of the Masisi gorillas may not resemble those of gorillas in the Virungas or Kahuzi regions but rather those of the Itebero-Utu region. It is said that gorillas immigrated into the Masisi region over the last several decades from lowland forest near the Walikale region. It is recommended, therefore, that any relocation be done to one of the protected areas in the lowland forests. However, in order to respect their genetic, morphological, ecological or behavioural independence, we should not mix gorillas who belong to different local populations, so the best solution for relocation would be to find a suitable unoccupied space near the Masisi region.

Recently I have been informed by the local people of Masisi that the Masisi gorillas have ended to exist. A strong conflict between tribes in the Masisi region in the past 5 years has resulted in severe hunting and complete destruction of the gorillas' habitat in this area. Such a catastrophe might occur anywhere in Zaire. Translocation is not the optimal method to preserve gorillas' genetic diversity and viable populations, but is the most effective one to save endangered populations from becoming extinct. We (scientists) need to organize the international committee urgently to discuss this matter and to decide the future action plan with IZCN, local governments of Zaire and NGOs of various countries.

Juichi Yamagiwa

It is clearly much better, ethically and economically, to translocate rather than to reintroduce. As much income and expertise as possible should be generated in the habitat country. One has to find adequate space, with adequate food and protection. Intact social groups must be moved (caught by tranquilliser-dart-guns), when populations are faced with imminent extinction. The project has to be coordinated by an expert on wildlife translocation, with adequate knowledge of primates, preferably a veterinary surgeon, in collaboration with a wildlife/conservation expert/official of the country concerned. It should be initiated by primatologists with the relevant data, and by wildlife/forestry authorities with control over the appropriate land.

Translocations have been more successful for bird and mammal game species (86%) than for endangered species (46%). For primates, translocations of rhesus macaques in India and olive baboons in Kenya have been successful.

David Chivers

While recognizing that the translocation of gorillas is a tempting option, I believe that this can only be considered as a last resort - that is, when there is no alternative for a given gorilla population. Different criteria may apply to the lowland gorillas and the mountain gorilla (I am using current conventional taxonomic terminology for the different subspecies - I realize that things may change!).

In the case of the lowland gorillas, translocation of a small group of animals might be acceptable if their habitat is clearly doomed and there is an apparently satisfactory place to which these animals can be translocated. In the case of the mountain gorilla, however - bearing in mind its localized distribution and small numbers - the dangers are substantially greater: the whole subspecies (Gorilla gorilla beringei) could be put at risk if the translocation proved unsuccessful. The reasons for my cautious approach to this subject are as follows:

  1. Translocation always involves risks to the animals, regardless of whether they are translocated using physical or chemical restraint.
  2. Movement of gorillas to another location could result in either
    a) spread of infectious agents (pathogens) from the translocated gorillas into a new environment - and thus possibly to animals of various species that are already present in that environment or
    b) the translocated gorillas may encounter and themselves contract infectious diseases en route to, or in, their new habitat.
  3. We still know little about the habitat and nutritional needs of gorillas; translocation to some localities might prove disastrous.
  4. Translocation probably implies abandoning an existing habitat and this could be bad psychologically, politically and environmentally.

Certainly in the case of the mountain gorilla (and probably also in the case of many populations of the lowland gorilla), time, money and effort would be better spent protecting the existing habitat and groups of gorillas, especially where there is some conservation/tourism infrastructure, rather than moving the animals and in so doing exposing them to risks and probably attracting local and international criticism.

John E. Cooper

As a conservation strategy, the translocation of wild animals is usually a last resort because of the tremendous problems involved. Translocation of wild gorillas from one forest region to another would be logistically difficult, massively expensive, and could easily go wrong. The dangers include:

  1. trauma to the animals who are captured and moved, with the death of some of the gorillas being likely,
  2. the possible introduction of pathogens to the new area,
  3. failure of the re-introduced animals to adapt to the new environs,
  4. cross-breeding of potentially separate sub-species.

Furthermore, without careful and extensive public awareness campaigns, a translocation project could send the wrong message to local communities, seriously undermining the credibility of the conservation message and of conservation personnel.

Translocation has potential benefits, such as preventing deleterious inbreeding by introducing "new blood", or saving the lives of gorillas who are doomed to slaughter if they remain where they are. What is good for a handful of individuals, however, is not necessarily good for the species as a whole. We do not feel that the potential benefits would outweigh the risks of translocation in most cases, especially if this expensive endeavor draws money and resources away from other conservation efforts in regions with viable gorilla populations.

Kelly Stewart and Sandy Harcourt

Case Report on Scabies Infection in Bwindi Gorillas
Gorilla Journal - December 1996

Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) have been working together to treat a skin disease in one of the gorilla groups in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This case has involved both veterinarians and park managers in the attempt to decipher the cause of the problem and to treat it, while at the same time preventing spread to other gorilla groups, and discovering how the infection was introduced into the gorilla group if not naturally present in the population.

In August one member of the Katendegere Group was reported to have small patches of hair loss. At the time, the park and IGCP staff were not overly concerned as gorillas can have bald patches as results of scrapes or wounds, among other causes. However, this condition progressed and by the end of August, a vet check by the IGCP veterinarian and park staff showed that both young animals in the group had more significant hair loss. The young subadult male, Kasigasi - 6 years old - had patches of hair loss visible over his abdomen and on the back of his legs. The youngest animal in the group, an 8 month old infant male, showed more serious hair loss. Dr. Gladys Kalema, the Veterinary Officer for Uganda Wildlife Authority in Kampala was contacted and she immediately travelled down to Bwindi with Dr. Richard Kock, a visiting wildlife veterinarian from Kenya Wildlife Services.

Kasigasi was darted and immobilised for diagnosis and treatment. On close-up examination his condition was much more severe than it appeared from a distance. He was covered with skin lesions consistent with scabies infection (Sarcoptes scabiei). Samples were taken for laboratory diagnosis, and he was treated for scabies and bacterial infection. The Makerere University Veterinary laboratory examined the samples and confirmed the diagnosis of scabies.

Sarcoptes scabei is a mite that infests the skin of many animal species, including primates. Domestic animals commonly are affected, and in dogs it causes one type of the common skin disease known as mange. Humans can also have scabies, and it is common in communities around the park. Scabies is very infectious and direct contact with an infected animal or person is not required for transmission.

Although the vet team was extremely interested in the source of infection, the priority action was to treat all the animals in the group and to examine other gorilla groups for signs of infection. Luckily the Katendegere group appears to be the only group with clinical signs, so it is assumed that other groups are not affected. The follow-up to the diagnosis of scabies has included darting all of the other animals in the group. The adult animals in the group, one silverback and one female, showed little if no symptoms and have simply required treatment by remote injection via a dart gun. However, the adult female was carrying the small infant who was becoming increasingly bald and weakened by the infection. An infant of this young age of 8 months is still carried and protected by his mother, who in this case is a very shy female, often difficult to see in the best of circumstances. The infant was too small to treat simply with a dart fired from a distance, so the team attempted to dart and immobilise the mother in order to hand-grab the infant for treatment.

The difficulties of working in the "Impenetrable" forest became painfully clear during attempts to save the infant gorilla. The female was extremely nervous and she hid in the deepest bush whenever the vet team approached. In addition, the silverback continually placed himself between the female and the team, precluding any attempt at darting. The brief views of the infant showed him to be very thin and almost completely bald, leading to the conclusion that he was likely to die. This prediction proved sadly true as the emaciated body of the little baby gorilla was found near the group's nests one morning.

Gorilla females normally carry their dead infants for a number of days before dropping the body and the fact that this one was left the first morning after his death might suggest that he had been weak and immobile for a period such that the female had already begun to lose maternal attachment towards him.

This was a very sad outcome for a team of rangers and vets who had tried a number of times to save this little gorilla. Additional samples taken at the autopsy of the infant male confirmed the diagnosis of scabies.

The immobilisation of Kasigasi marks the first time a Bwindi gorilla has been darted, so there is no historical data on presence or absence of scabies in this population. However, the nearby Virunga population has a long history of gorilla immobilisations for emergency treatment, and scabies has not yet been reported. Therefore this diagnosis is the first known case of scabies in a wild mountain gorilla. This is cause for concern about the source of infection, and a sample has been sent to an entomologist to attempt to identify if the mite is of human or animal origin. If it is possible to identify the source, it will help park managers narrow down the list of possible management actions to take. For example, if the source is domestic animals, stricter controls of animals herded along public paths through the park might be considered. Alternatively if the source is human, the park must consider all the possible means for infection from humans including the different activities that bring people into the park, both legally and occasionally illegally. From the local people's perspective, the gorillas also range outside of the park in a similar "illegal" fashion to raid banana tree plantations and this is another potential source of infection from both humans and domestic animals.

The park and IGCP are continuing efforts to prevent re-infection of these or other gorillas in Bwindi.

Liz Macfie (from: IGCP Update 2, September 1996)

The silverback leader of the Katendegere group died from old age in May this year. Following his death, a blackback left the group. Currently, the group is led by a young silverback who has a broken wrist, but this does not hamper him severely.

The Group has only three members now, and the tourist visits are being restricted. Only four tourists are permitted per day. No further advance bookings are made by UWA. Any permits not sold in Kampala are sold in Buhoma on the stand-by basis. IGCP and UWA have just started to habituate another group, but it will take 1-2 years until it can be visited by tourists.

Visit to the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda
Gorilla Journal - December 1996

Two years after the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Project was abruptly ended by Klaus-Jürgen Sucker's mysterious death, I visited my former home on the northern flank of the Virunga Vulcanoes in southwestern Uganda. For part of the time I was accompanied by Denise Wenger and Ulrich Karlowski.

I was amazed to drive on the recently improved road from Kisoro up the mountain to the national park's headquarters. This road used to be passable only with a four-wheel drive vehicle or on foot. Today this is a road any vehicle can use.

At the headquarters, the rangers and I were equally happy about our reunion. It took days to exchange all our news. At the end of the visit a wonderful and sometimes very moving party took place with songs and joint dances in one of the metal round huts of the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Project. I also learned a lot about the developments and difficulties of the national park from park wardens Richard Bukowa and Adonia. For instance, for the first time in 40 years, one mountain gorilla family stayed continuously in the Ugandan part of the Virunga conservation area for 6 months without moving into Zaire.

From January until approximately mid-July, the Nyakagezi group, which is habituated to tourists remained in the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (MGNP) and was visited by tourists almost daily. It is very likely that this group will return by the beginning of the rainy season in October. It will be interesting to see how long their total stay will be in the MGNP in 1996. Unfortunately, the rangers discontinued their patrols to other gorilla groups which are not habituated to humans because they expect extra payment for this which they do not receive at the moment. Therefore, we could not learn anything about other gorillas in the MGNP during our visit.

Observations in the northwestern area of the MGNP indicate that the growth of the vegetation cover in zone 2 (the formerly illegally cultivated area) has slowed down. As was already indicated in the middle of 1993, grasses are still dominant in large areas. The immigration of bushes and woody plants into the grasslands is still limited to the area along the forest edge. I had a positive impression of the trees planted in zone 2 in 1993. Height measurements and an estimate of the seedlings' survival rate indicate that the planting of Hagenia abyssinica was especially successful. However, seedlings of Bersama abyssinica, Tabernaemontana johnstonii and others also survived the first 3 years well. The human population near the park still accepts the protected area. No agriculture or grazing by Ugandan cattle is taking place within the park. However, at night cattle are apparently herded into the park from the Rwandan side. The forest area in the Parc National des Volcans (the Rwandan part of the Virunga conservation area) has been decreased: a part of the forest at lower altitudes was "transformed" into farmland.

A part of Klaus-Jürgen Sucker's conservation project was the planting of a hedge of local trees (mainly Erythrina abyssinica) along the northern border of the national park. In certain parts a rock wall was built additionally in order to protect the farmers' fields from the park's game. In the vicinity of the headquarters, the hedge has recently been complemented by a rock wall.

Staff and Infrastructure

Uganda National Parks (now Uganda Wildlife Authority, UWA) has increased the number of park wardens responsible for Mgahinga from three to four. Chief Park Warden Fred Kateego is in charge. Currently, two American Peace Corps volunteers are working in the MGNP within the areas of tourism development and nature conservation education. Under their guidance, the building of trails for tourists who do not visit the gorillas was organised. For instance, they were responsible for the digging of drainage ditches in the Rugyezi swamp, an afromontane swamp in the saddle between Sabinyo and Gahinga. Each of these ditches is 40 cm wide and approximately 6 m long, and they cut across the trail through fragile vegetation consisting of cyperus, club mosses, immortelles and mosses all the way down to the rocky base. After all, the tourists must not get their feet wet when they hike through the core area of the national park, even if this may threaten the sensitive ecosystem in the long run!

The risk of fire in the eastern area of the MGNP on Muhavura continues to be a problem. Fires start on fields in Rwanda and spread from there to Uganda. The national park administration intends to cut fire breaks to prevent fires from spreading.

The park administration mentioned the invasion of the Australian acacia species Acacia mearnsii in zone 2 as another problem. Currently, the rangers are using the wood of Acacia mearnsii as fire wood in an attempt to slow down the spread of this exotic tree species, because otherwise it may displace the local flora in the long run. This strategy was followed already in the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Project. Park warden Richard Bukowa, who is responsible for law enforcement and tourism, supports the use of this tree species as the currently only sensible way to implement the multiple-use concept of CARE.

In addition, we were told that there is a risk of disturbance to the sensitive alpine vegetation in the area of the Muhavura mountain top if too many tourists climb up. Richard Bukowa is considering restricting the number of mountain climbers to fewer than 10 per day.

Situation of the Rangers of the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Salaries and top-ups.
CARE supported the rangers with Uganda Shillings 20,000 (ca. $ 20) per month until June 1996. Since then the rangers have received only their Government salary, which is also Uganda Shillings 20,000 monthly.

Equipment for the rangers.
In the whole phase when CARE supported the national park, approximately 30 rangers received twelve sleeping bags and approximately the same number of backpacks and sets of rain clothes. The rangers complained about insufficient equipment and about the lack of support since the abrupt end of the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Project in June 1994. Only gum boots ("Uganda quality") were made available by CARE in sufficient numbers (i. e. for each ranger).

Some of the rangers are starting to supplement their low salaries with additional income besides their ranger activities. This, of course, is not an advertisement for the park administration and it also means that the motivation for the main task continues to decrease.

Ursula Karlowski

Virunga National Park: Threatened in its Core
Gorilla Journal - December 1996

The Parc National des Virunga was the first national park in Africa, being established as early as 1925. In 1979, it was the first national park in Africa to be declared a world heritage site by UNESCO because of its extraordinary biodiversity. The great variety of its ecosystems - some of them spectacular - helped the park to become very important both for scientific research and for the development of tourism in eastern Zaire.

The park's 8,000 km² comprise various ecosystems in continuous sequence. The northern sector extends from the lowland rain forests of the Semliki up to the afroalpine zone of the Ruwenzori. In the south, tracts of forest turn into the savannahs of the central sector at Rwindi and Rutshuru, including the area of Lake Edward which is rich in fish and birdlife. The southern sector of the park is characterized by the montane rain forests of the Virunga Volcanoes.

Virunga National Park is home to more than 200 mammal and almost 700 bird species, many of which are endemic to the Central African Rift Valley or the national park area. The park became world famous by the mountain gorillas in the Virungas, the gorillas at Mt. Tshiaberimu, the highest concentration of hippos in the world, numerous herds of elephants, the Virunga Volcanoes and the Ruwenzori.

Threats to the Park

Virunga National Park has seen several periods of intensive hunting and destruction of its natural resources as a consequence of the unrest in Zaire from 1960 to 1965 and the international demand for ivory from 1979 to 1985. Nevertheless, it had been accepted by the local population for decades and its boundaries had been largely respected. However, the current implosion of Zairean state structures, together with the presence of more than 700,000 refugees from neighbouring Rwanda, are hitting the park in its core and give rise to worries that its ecological variety may be destroyed for good.

The southern sector is most threatened, i. e. the areas around the active volcanoes in the West, Nyamulagira and Nyiragongo, as well as the extinct volcanoes in the east, Mikeno, Karisimbi, Visoke and Sabinyo. The biggest refugee camp, Mugunga, is situated mainly within the park. In spite of the efforts of the UNHCR, the refugees depend on the wood resources of the park and its surrounding area to prepare their meals. Non-timber products such as bamboo, an important food for the gorillas, are used for crafts. The western part of the park became a retreat for the former Rwandan army. When the new Rwandan government reissued the currency and the money belonging to the former army lost its value, the exiled army exploited large parts of the forested areas for charcoal to finance themselves. Hunting increased dramatically as a consequence of a wide distribution of firearms and border conflicts between the Hutu militia and the new Rwandan army that took place until recently.

The situation is no less dramatic in the central sector of the park. Although the wooded savannah is not threatened to the same degree as the montane forests of the southern sector, the civil war led to the presence of numerous armed units and their poaching caused a drastic reduction in mammal populations in the last 2 years. Hippos, elephants and antelopes have been especially negatively affected. In the northern sector, which had been the site of internal Zairean armed conflicts until 1994, the poaching in the savannah areas has increased and now equals that in the areas further to the south. However, the forested areas are less threatened as they are further away from refugee camps.


For some time the notion has been widespread that nature conservation works in the long run only if conservationists cooperate with the people concerned. This is now being demonstrated dramatically in eastern Zaire. After the media-assisted machinery of aid organisations in support of the refugees had taken off, the international public resigned itself to the misguided hope that the political problems would somehow solve themselves. This protraction of decisions at the international level about how to solve the refugees' miserable situation politically has not only led to a catastrophic deterioration of the refugees' situation but has also turned the Zairean population into a plaything of events. Where human rights are violated in such an outrageous way, other common interests such as nature conservation naturally fall by the wayside, even if one of the most important national parks in the world is concerned.

The IZCN can protect the Virunga National Park in the long run only if the political problems are solved and the urgently needed international support is given. Only such a solution will allow a close cooperation between the local population and the nature conservation authority and the development and implementation of long-term protection and sustainable management.

The goal must therefore be an international agreement in which the representatives of the countries concerned (i. e. Rwanda, Zaire, Burundi, Uganda) and the refugees participate, and which will offer hope to the almost 1 million refugees in Eastern Zaire. Until this happens, support can only be given with humanitarian emergency measures. For the Virunga National Park, ecological emergency measures are needed that enable the IZCN to keep up at least a minimal protection program. However, conservation needs a minimum degree of political stability. The presence of approximately 1 million people in an already densely populated area renders protection of the natural resources hopeless, both within and outside the park.

NGOs play an important role in both aspects. Apart from a vehement demand for a humane solution of the refugee question, the catastrophic ecological consequences that this situation has for a whole region have to be pointed out more strongly than has happened to date, in order to urge the political parties to find a solution. They themselves have to become active in developing ecological emergency measures (logistic support of the IZCN, public relations etc.) and in encouraging the international public to act.

Uwe Klug

The Mountain Gorillas of the Mikeno
Gorilla Journal - December 1996

There are seven habituated mountain gorilla groups in Zaire. The families of Rugabo, Rugendo, Ndungutse and Luwawa live exclusively in Zaire, the Faida group ranges in Uganda most of the year and is called "Nyakagezi group" there. The families of Kwitonda and Rafiki cross the border between Rwanda and Zaire.

The mountain gorillas of the Mikeno region within the Virunga National Park are in a state of shock, which has multiple causes. This is hardly recognizable during a short trip. However, it becomes apparent if it is compared to their behaviour before the crisis; the animals shift their range to search for security in other areas.

A considerable part of the Rwandan refugees in North Kivu have specialized in trade in natural products (charcoal, wood, game, etc.), obtained from the Virunga National Park. According to Nicolas Blondel (EU), approximately half of the bamboo on the Mikeno - which is an important food plant for the gorillas in certain seasons - has been cut by the refugees for the production and sale of various products (mats, baskets, construction etc.). Additionally, the observed poaching in the park has increased severely since the arrival of the refugees. The number of snares found in the park increased from 1994 to 1995 from 558 to 1408 (nylon) and from 355 to 1387 (wire). The number of confiscated machetes was 1588 in 1994 and 4078 in 1995.

All this disturbed the great apes so much that they changed their normal annual rhythm. Their usual stay in the bamboo zone from October to December was reduced to only 2 months last year.

In August 1995, within 2 weeks three gorillas (two silverbacks and one adult female) were killed by poachers who belonged to the local people of Jomba and Bukima. The motive was an inquiry by a mysterious dealer who wanted to buy baby gorillas. The poaching caused severe disturbances in the gorilla groups.

The Rugabo group is now being led by a blackback male. Within this family, the state of shock lasted only a short while; 2 weeks after the killing of two group members, the group accepted visits by tourist groups again. During the restlessness after the killing three juveniles and one subadult animal disappeared. Despite the investigations by the IZCN and several NGOs, no traces of the animals could be found. We assume that they fled and were integrated into wild gorilla groups.

At the end of August 1995, the silverback Luwawa was killed. As a result, three members of his family disappeared. Several days after his death, a wild silverback took over the group. Its size increased to a total of ten members due to a birth.

In November 1995, the group of Ndungutse probably split while staying in the bamboo zone at the border of Zaire and Rwanda. This region is very difficult to reach for our guards, since sudden attacks by the Interahamwe and the Rwandan army make this region very unsafe to pass. Earlier this year, Rugendo's family left the park for 1 month; they were expelled by attacks and poaching. They only returned when the IZCN, the IGCP and the local people drove them back into the park.

Immediately after the killing of the gorillas, the IZCN, together with the GTZ (Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit - German Technical Aid), IGCP (International Gorilla Conservation Programme) and WFP (World Food Programme), established an effective, solid surveillance. Seven guard groups patrol near the gorillas day and night. The guards only discontinue their surveillance when the gorillas approach the border to the neighboring country or cross it. Such protective measures are very expensive and strenuous.

The GTZ and other organizations recently restricted their activities to immediate measures for the conservation of the park. The income from gorilla tourism decreased since so many Rwandans have sought refuge in Zaire. Since the attack at Kanombe (Bukima), two attacks on the border post of Bunagana and a recent attack attempt at the guard post at Jomba by Rwandans, the situation has become alarming.

Which strategies will ensure the long-term conservation of the gorillas in the current crisis? The proceeds from tourism have dropped and the GTZ and NGOs are withdrawing in spite of the presence of the Rwandan refugees and their encroachment to Rwanda during which they come very close to the ranges of the gorillas.

The poachers who had killed the gorillas to obtain infants for sale have been released from prison and returned to their villages. The gorillas can only be protected from further poaching by an open and close cooperation between the nature conservation authority and the local people. Attempts to obtain gorillas must be reported. Unfortunately, such a cooperation does not exist yet, but will be developed in view of the problems faced by both sides. The interventions of international aid organizations do not help to solve the problem as they include only emergency and immediate measures and have not developed long-term strategies.

Size of the seven habituated gorilla groups in Zaire from December 1994 to June 1996

Name 12/94 03/95 06/95 09/95 12/95 03/96 06/96
Rugabo* 20 23 23 17 17 17 13
Rugendo 10 13 13 14 13 14 15
Faida 6 6 6 6 6 6 8
Kwitonda 6 7 6 6 6 7 8
Luwawa* 12 12 12 10 10 12 12
Ndungutse 31 31 31 31 24 25 25
Rafiki 11 11 11 11 11 11 11
Total 96 103 102 95 87 92 92

* affected by poaching

The mountain gorillas of the Mikeno face the following problems:

Claude Sikubwabo Kiyengo and Norbert Mushenzi Lusenge

Recently we heard that at the end of November, 1996, the national park infrastructure on the Zairean part of the Virunga Volcanoes was destroyed and a number of guards killed. The gorillas seemed not to have been affected, however.

News from Rwanda
Gorilla Journal - December 1996

Another gorilla family, the 12-member Amahoro group, is being habituated for tourists. The silverback bit a tracker during this process. A similar incident happened in 1980, when the silverback Brutus (possibly Amahoro's father) bit Bill Weber.

From: Digit News Europe, Winter 1996/97.

On 5 December, 1996, we received a fax by Liz Williamson from Kigali. She told us that the Rwandan side of the Virungas had not been affected directly by the war and the return of the refugees at all. The park was very quiet and the Karisoke staff continued their work on a daily basis.

The Situation in Kahuzi-Biega National Park
Gorilla Journal - December 1996

Here we had planned to include the report of Mbake Sivha about her work in the park - however, it has not arrived, because she could not mail it before the war broke out. Georg D”rken, the leader of the GTZ project in Kahuzi-Biega, who had fled to Kinshasa when the conflict started, briefly described the situation in the park to us.

The conservator and the guards of the station Tshivanga (which was looted and destroyed) as well as the families of the guards hid in the park and survived. A mechanic of the project was killed during the fights. Nearly all the project and park vehicles and some equipment were stolen. At the moment, the guards patrol in the old park area without weapons and uniforms.

Poaching has increased considerably; bush meat is offered and 34 elephant carcasses have already been found. Bamboo and firewood cutting in the park has also increased as well as gold mining. Mbake Sivha is safe in Bukavu and keeps contact to Georg D”rken, who has not been able to visit Bukavu and the park since the war started. Everything is calm now and the situation looks good.

In the Forest of the World's Rarest Gorillas
Gorilla Journal - December 1996

A remote mountain in eastern Zaire, Mt. Tshiaberimu, is the home of the smallest gorilla population of the world. It still is not known what they look like and whether they are mountain gorillas, eastern lowland gorillas or another subspecies. At best 20 of these apes have found refuge in a small forest island.

After an adventurous and sometimes dangerous journey, Ulrich Karlowski, Ursula Karlowski and Denise Wenger, on behalf of the Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe, succeeded in working their way through to Mt. Tshiaberimu in July 1996. They handed over equipment which was urgently needed to the guards. This was the start of our new gorilla conservation project.

In a Precarious Situation

At the beginning of the century, the rain forest surrounding Mt. Tshiaberimu was estimated to extend to 450 km² - now only about 60 km² are left. The mountain is situated in the northern sector of the Virunga National Park. In 1995, Thomas Butynski and Esteban Sarmiento conducted the first true gorilla census at Tshiaberimu. During their 2-week census, they found traces of one gorilla group with four members and another one with eleven individuals, as well as a solitary silverback.

"It seems that the total number of gorillas remaining on Mt. Tshiaberimu is 16 to 18, at best perhaps 20, certainly not more. We searched nearly every corner where gorillas might be found. Surprisingly, the animals only use an area of approximately 18 km² in the bamboo and large Podocarpus zone between 2,700 and 2,900 m on the southwestern corner of the mountain,"

Esteban Sarmiento said. The anatomist had measured gorilla skeletons and skulls, including a few from Mt. Tshiaberimu, in museums around the world. When we asked whether the animals belong to the mountain gorilla subspecies, he said:

"We can only say that they are unusually large gorillas which cannot simply be classified as mountain or eastern lowland gorillas. Without additional field observations, we just can say for the moment that this certainly is a very interesting genetical variation of the species."

At least these animals have learned to hide very well - neither the American researchers nor the park guards saw any gorillas, not even from a distance.

Forest Elephants, Monkeys and Rare Birds

During the 1995 expedition, forest elephants also were hiding in the dense forest, although their tracks were clearly visible. Other larger mammals have become scarce at Mt. Tshiaberimu; only the blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis) lives there in considerable numbers. A group of L'Hoest's monkeys (Cercopithecus lhoesti) and some guerezas (Colobus guereza) were sighted, and the guards said that probably three duiker species are also present, whereas leopards, forest hogs and buffaloes have vanished long ago. Elephants, gorillas and the other animals are prisoners of the mountain; they cannot escape because the areas between the forest islands are too densely populated.

Numerous bird species live in this rain forest that looks strangely lost. Even if not all species have been registered, it has become clear that the Tshiaberimu hosts a surprising variety of birds, amongst them several rare species that perhaps can only survive as long as this forest exists.

A Forest Refuge and Many Questions

Wherever you look from the top of Mt. Tshiaberimu, the forest has disappeared outside the park boundaries except for small fringes along the mountains. Even those last remnants are slowly being destroyed bit by bit. Only a very small area is remaining from a rain forest that was still large 100 years ago. Slash-and-burn cultivation is the most serious threat to the gorillas and elephants. Some parts of the forest have been cleared and are populated up to 1 km within the national park area. Along the rivers the disastrous traces of gold miners who worked here until a few years ago are still clearly visible.

Is there a chance of survival for 20 gorillas in a 60 km² forest island in politically instable eastern Zaire at all? Does it make sense to protect a population of 20 animals without any chance for contact with conspecifics, who therefore inevitably end up in a genetical dead end? Would it not be a better idea to catch the gorillas of Mt. Tshiaberimu and translocate them to a zoo or larger national park area? Would this promise a better chance to save them from extinction?

"Anyone who considers this or similar actions is wasting his time, and the Tshiaberimu gorillas do not have much time left".

This is the conviction of Kimpungi-Muckar, the conservator of the northern sector of Virunga National Park.

With nearly fierce determination, the IZCN (Institut Zairois pour la Conservation de la Nature - Zairean Institute for the Conservation of Nature) wants to save as many of the animals and as much their habitat as possible. Since the conservator increased the number of guards for Tshiaberimu, poachers are hardly seen any more, and gold miners and woodcutters have completely disappeared from the area. Illegal cultivation has also been brought to a standstill. Staying in the forest can be dangerous for poachers nowadays. With no questions asked, armed intruders may be shot, and anyone who carries arms should be aware that the guards will shoot if he runs away instead of surrendering.

However, the guards do not have much more than their guns to protect the area. Their monthly pay is about $1 and they do not receive it regularly. Thanks to an EU project which adds another $15 to their monthly earnings, the IZCN guards now have enough time besides agriculture to dedicate to nature conservation.

But even the $15 to $16 per month are neither sufficient for food, nor for clothing or equipment. There is no hope for help from Kinshasa, and until recently now it seemed as if the world had forgotten about the gorillas of Mt. Tshiaberimu and their guards. Thomas Butynski and Esteban Sarmiento recommended that a comprehensive nature conservation project be established as soon as possible. As an immediate first step, equipment should be provided for the twelve Tshiaberimu guards. Exactly this was what we wanted to do during a scientific expedition.

Uncertain Journey into the Dark Heart of Africa

For July 1996, a 2-week expedition to Mt. Tshiaberimu had been planned with representatives of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (DFGF), Zoo Atlanta, the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe. Its most important aims were to negotiate with leading officials of the IZCN, possibilities for the immediate establishment of a conservation project there, to conduct comprehensive zoological and botanical inventories and to provide equipment to the guards. Altogether, about 14 persons from the USA and Germany were to participate. In addition to the equipment for the twelve guards, we had already ordered new uniforms and gum boots from a manufacturer in Kinshasa. According to our schedule, the uniforms already should have been delivered in July. However, things turned out differently.

Three weeks before our scheduled departure, the realization of the expedition became more and more questionable. Troubles and shootings in the refugee camps along the Virunga National Park were reported between the former Rwandan army and Zairean army, as well as some border conflicts with the new Rwandan army. We heard that the borders from Uganda and Rwanda to Zaire were closed. Moreover, it was uncertain whether the IZCN would give their permission for the expedition. On 29 September, there were rumours that the Hutu militia had put a reward of $1,000 on each American. Except for Esteban Sarmiento, all Americans consequently cancelled their participation. Our preparations were quite advanced at that time, and the risk did not seem very high to us, therefore we decided to deliver the equipment.

The Long Way to Mt. Tshiaberimu

We crossed the Zairean border at Kasindi with the equipment for the guards in mid-July and arrived at Mutsora, the headquarters for the management of the northern sector of the Virunga Park, without any problems. Our suprise action was successful. Kimpungi-Muckar had just returned from Kinshasa 2 days earlier, and he personally accompanied us to Mt. Tshiaberimu. One reason for this was perhaps that he otherwise cannot get there easily: Only one vehicle is available in the northern park sector, and it is often broken and not strong enough to manage the road up to Mt. Tshiaberimu.

It proved to be important to have Kimpungi-Muckar with us, as he obviously is a highly respected authority in the region. Without him we certainly would not have passed the many military and paramilitary checkpoints so smoothly. We heard gunshots every night we spent in Zaire.

Completely overloaded with seven persons and the equipment, it took us 4.5 hours for the last 37 km up the Tshiaberimu on a mountain road along incredible inclines and bends. Above 2,300 m, everything disappeared in dense mist. With a visibility range of about 5 m, the car creeped the last kilometers at walking speed.

The park guards who are stationed at the edge of the forest close by the mountain village Burusi, gladly received our equipment. They live here with their families completely secluded from the rest of the world, and before our visit they had not received any material support. The following equipment from the Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe was handed over: 12 backpacks, 5 sleeping bags, 12 T-shirts, 12 pullovers, 36 pairs of socks, 12 rain ponchos, 12 water bottles, 2 tents, 3 terps, 1 binocular and 1 compass.

For the park guards our direct aid meant an enormous revaluation of their status in the whole region. Kimpungi-Muckar and the Zairean biologist Deo Mbula, who had been employed by the IZCN as special conservator for Mt. Tshiaberimu, also realized that the Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe is seriously interested in the protection of the Tshiaberimu gorillas and that we do not just make promises, but also keep them.

A Future for 20 Gorillas

On the part of Zaire, first steps had already been taken for the better protection of this area: Kimpungi-Muckar had increased the number of guards to 21. This meant, however, that the 12 sets of equipment we handed over could not cover the actual requirements. In 1997, the number of guards - according to IZCN plans - is to be increased to nearly 50. Now the Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe and other conservation organizations should support the pathbreaking efforts of the Zairean authorities and help them to master their difficult task.

In addition, a four-wheel drive vehicle is urgently needed - it could be bought for about $ 5,000 in Zaire - along with cameras, torches, compasses, radio sets and other material necessary for the long-term protection of the Tshiaberimu gorillas and their habitat. We promised the guards, Kimpungi-Muckar and Deo Mbula, that we would come back in 1997 and bring all this equipment with us.

Ulrich Karlowski, Ursula Karlowski and Denise Wenger

Copyright © 1997 Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe, Kilimanjaro Adventure Travel
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