Washington DC - Despite years of civil war and chaos across their range, the highly endangered mountain gorillas of "Gorillas in the Mist" fame are on the increase, with a population of at least 700, a new count finds.
A census of mountain gorillas in the Virunga forests, on the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda, recorded an impressive 17 percent increase in the population of this highly endangered great ape. Undertaken late last year and released this month, the census is the first since 1989 because of civil unrest in the region.
The census was led by the International Gorilla Conservation Program, a joint initiative of World Wildlife Fund, the African Wildlife Foundation and Flora and Fauna International.
The world's remaining mountain gorillas are divided into two populations in East Africa. A total of 380 mountain gorillas were recorded in the Virunga Mountains, an increase of 56 from the 324 counted more than a decade ago. Together with the findings of another census undertaken in 2002 for the other population, in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, the total number of mountain gorillas in the world now officially stands at no less than 700.
"The increase in mountain gorilla numbers is being celebrated by conservationists and park rangers, who have endured very difficult working conditions in this strife-torn area over the past decade," said Karen Baragona of WWF's great apes program. "But we can't forget that the global mountain gorilla population is still low. Poaching or disease could easily wipe these charismatic creatures from the face of the Earth."
The mountain gorilla became known to science just over 100 years ago, in 1902. Affected by wars, poaching, disease, and dramatic shrinking of their mountain habitat, by 1989 there were only some 620 remaining. Groundbreaking work by conservation groups and dedicated park staff have helped their numbers grow.
Throughout civil war in Rwanda and unrest in DRC in 1990s, WWF and the International Gorilla Conservation Program provided emergency support to Rwanda and DRC, including covering the costs of patrols, field equipment, assistance to the army to defuse landmines in the Virungas and payment of salaries for park staff. When more than 1 million refugees fled Rwanda in 1994 and settled in camps near the gorillas' habitat, patrols were organized to protect all the gorilla groups that had been habituated to humans for ecotourism.