Wildlife revival: Conservation wins for tigers and gorillas

As we mark World Conservation Day this week, it is a good time for some heartening news from the environmental world, which shows how the determined efforts of the few can create positive change and even bring species back from the brink.

Deep in central Africa – where the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda meet – lies one of the most ancient habitats on the continent and the last refuge of one of the rarest animals on earth: the mountain gorilla.

By the 1980s, the effects of decades of devastating civil war and unbridled poaching had reduced their numbers to about 350 animals. The shadow of extinction was closing in.

When we flew through the mist swirling over forest-clad mountains in 2011, the primate was still critically endangered. From above we could see how the hillsides had been stripped bare for cultivation, butting up against the edge of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where half the world’s remaining mountain gorillas live.

The potential for conflict between man and great ape was clear, the fields providing easy pickings for the gorillas which were often subsequently killed in large numbers.

Fear and wonder

After a sweltering trek of several hours through the rainforest, we homed in on a gorilla group. I remember being so close that we could pick out their scent – pretty much how pungent, sweaty humans would smell after a lifetime without shower gel. They share 98 percent of our DNA after all.

Suddenly Safari, a big alpha male, bowled purposefully into view, stopped and stared us down. We were frozen by an adrenalising combination of fear and wonder. As he shambled off into the undergrowth, a couple of infants, no more than two years old, crashed about in the trees. Their mother, sitting on her haunches, sat calmly observing, chewing handfuls of fibrous leaves.

The fact that these gorillas were there at all is down to the success of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme. A 12km long buffer zone had been established along the fringes of the national park, protecting the gorillas and so allowing tourist dollars to flow. Locals could then get a job with the conservation programme itself, becoming guides or trackers, while others could make money from basket weavings and carvings.

In 2018, the primate’s status was changed from critically endangered to endangered, with its population noted to be “increasing”. Today, mountain gorillas in the wild number more than 1,000.

Dangers during the pandemic

Mountain gorillas have seen a spectacular revival, but there are new dangers, so efforts must be redoubled.

COVID-19 and the absence of cash-rich Westerners have affected local livelihoods with government officials in central Africa warning that people could resort to poaching out of desperation.

Conservationists, though, are determined not to lose the gains made by decades of work. The populations of mountain gorillas must continue to thrive and grow.

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