NAIROBI, KENYA – MAY 19, 2010 – Four mountain gorillas were found dead in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, announced World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The mother and three infant gorillas were part of an estimated 380 members of the highly endangered Virunga mountain gorilla population.
On Sunday, May 16, trackers from the Karisoke Research Centre visiting the Pablo group reported they had found a dead female and her baby—Mutesi— alive but very weak. As the trackers went to find the rest of the group they then discovered another dead baby gorilla. Fortunately, the second baby’s mother was found a day later with no signs of illness.
The trackers immediately alerted the Rwandan Development Board which mobilized veterinarians to try and save the ailing baby Mutesi. In the quickly fading daylight, the veterinarians decided to move towards the park to link up with the trackers. Their valiant efforts to administer antibiotics and warm her up were futile. Baby Mutesi was hardly breathing; she died about two hours later.
While the exact cause of death has yet to be determined, the gorillas are thought to have died because of the extreme cold and rainy conditions. The gorillas’ current range is high on Mt. Karisimbi, and at high altitude it will be even colder. There are no signs of foul-play. However, all the dead gorillas were taken to the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project laboratory for necropsy in order to determine the possible causes of the deaths.
“Habitat destruction and human disturbance forces gorillas to move higher up the slopes of the mountains, where temperatures can regularly fall below freezing,” said WWF Sr. Program Officer Matthew Lewis. “Just as humans can’t withstand prolonged exposure to harsh climates, neither can gorillas, especially infants. Gorillas need to be able to freely move up and down the slopes to find the best food and best conditions for survival, and if they are unable to do so I’m afraid we could see more of these types of events in the future.”
There only about 680 mountain gorillas in the wild making them one of the world’s most highly endangered great apes. About half the population lives in the Virunga Volcanoes, a chain of active and inactive volcanoes that straddles the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The other half lives in Bwindi Impenetrable Park in Uganda.
Since the four dead gorillas were discovered, the Rwanda Development Board and Karisoke Research Centre staff have identified all other gorilla groups in Volcanoes National Park to confirm that there have been no further casualties.
“We can thankfully report that for all other research and tourism gorilla groups all individuals were identified,” says Maryke Gray, IGCP’s technical advisor. “There were no missing gorillas and no gorillas were found to have serious health problems.”
The news of the gorilla deaths is casting a pall over enthusiasm being generated by a mountain gorilla census being conducted across the Virunga Volcanoes. Facilitated by IGCP and funded by WWF, a team of 80 park officials and other experts over two months collected data on gorilla activity as well as faecal samples for genetic analysis and health.
The results are now being analyzed and are expected to be released in October 2010. The last census of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Volcanoes, conducted in 2003, revealed the population had increased 17 percent since the previous census in 1989. Conservationists are hoping to see another rise this time around.