WCS’s history of work with mountain gorillas is long and distinguished. George Shaller was the first scientist to attempt to study this species in the wild and all scientists who followed him recognize the quality of this pioneering work. Bill Weber (previously Director of the WCS North America program) and Amy Vedder (previously Vice-President and Director of the Living Landscapes Program) were the first people to establish mountain gorilla tourism in Africa as a way of providing an economic incentive to halt the destruction of the forest.
Mountain gorillas only occur in two protected sites: the Virunga volcanoes and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. WCS has supported the monitoring of the Mountain Gorilla population in both the Virunga Volcanoes and Bwindi for many years. George Shaller estimated the population in Virunga Volcanoes to be about 450 in the late 1950s. This dropped to about 230 in the late 1970s and steadily built up to 320 in 1989 and 480 in 2006.
In Bwindi Impenetrable National Park WCS supported the first survey by George Shaller in 1960, followed by other surveys in the 1980s, 1997, 2002 and 2006. These showed a gradual increase in numbers from an estimate of 150 to 310.
The income generated by mountain gorilla tourism now funds conservation of these parks as well as other protected areas in the region and tourism in Uganda and Rwanda now earns more foreign currency than any other business for the country because of mountain gorilla tourism. This is a likely reason why this is the only ape to be increasing in numbers in the World. As a result there is less need for direct support for interventions for this species as the national protected area authorities are able to fund their conservation. Instead there is a need to support research, capacity building and monitoring of threats to their survival, including threats from tourism such as disease risks and effects on behaviour of the apes.
Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation
Currently WCS provides technical and financial support to the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, a research station linked to Mbarara University in Uganda which undertakes research for the Uganda Wildlife Authority in Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga National Parks. The types of research projects made there include:
- A study of the impact of tourism on gorillas
- A study of the ecology and ranging of the gorillas
- Censuses of mountain gorillas in Bwindi and Virunga Volcanoes
- An evaluation of conservation strategies in and around the parks.
- Methods to reduce human-wildlife conflict
- Monitoring of human use of the forest
- The importance of edge effects on forest composition and human impacts.
- Monitoring the impacts of climate change
WCS has also supported research projects in and around the Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda (part of the Virunga Volcanoes) to look at the extent of crop raiding and the impact of the civil war on large mammals in the park. In general the findings showed that buffalo, bushbuck and duiker numbers have declined or remained stable but are still reasonably healthy. The findings of the crop raiding study showed that stone walls are the most effective barriers to cropraiding animals where they are maintained but that most animals are coming out of gaps in the barriers which are used by local people to enter the park illegally.
In 2002 WCS worked with the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, and CARE Uganda to carry out a socioeconomic survey of the people living around Bwindi, Echuya Forest, Virunga Volcanoes and Nyungwe Forest. Understanding the behaviour and needs of the people in this region is deemed as important as understanding the ecology of the gorillas because it will help conservation agencies target their resources to help local people more effectively and thereby reduce the conflict they have with the parks.
More recently WCS has been supporting projects to reduce gorilla-people conflict in the Virunga National park in DRC where some gorillas have started moving several kilometers outside the park because of their level of habituation to people.