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Virunga Massif Mountain Gorilla Census Ongoing

Mountain gorillas are endangered primate species that live in the Virunga massif and in Bwindi impenetrable forest in southwestern Uganda. The Virunga massif comprises of a series of volcanic mountains that stretch from southwestern Uganda, northwestern Rwanda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo covering Mgahinga gorilla park, volcanoes national park and Virunga national park in Uganda, Rwanda and DRC respectively.

In order to effectively plan for mountain gorillas and to ensure their sustainability for the future generations, the three major governments through the wildlife organizations (Uganda wildlife authority –Uganda, Rwanda development board – Rwanda and the I’Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature – DRC) developed a frame work under the GVTC- Greater Virunga Trans boundary Collaboration that brings them together to address the fate of mountain gorilla conservation and tourism in the region.

The mountain gorilla population was in the 1980’s was greatly reduced by poaching, diseases and encroachment on their habitants by humans. By then, the total mountain gorilla population was estimated at only 350 however today after a series of conservation efforts, the mountain gorilla population is estimated at 900 mountain gorillas which is also expected to rise in the future. This has left many yearning to know the current mountain gorilla population, which the ongoing mountain gorilla census is yet to establish.

The good news is that every after five year the three governments under the Greater Virunga Trans boundary Collaboration carry out a mountain gorilla census to determine the growth rate of the gorillas. In the last gorilla census (carried out in 2010), the mountain gorilla population in the Virunga massif was estimated at about 450 with the largest population living in volcanoes national park (Rwanda) however today the mountain gorilla population in the Virunga massif is estimated at 800 gorillas, which we are yet to discover.

The census started in Rwanda’s volcanoes national park (northwestern Rwanda) and it will end in Uganda’s Mgahinga gorilla national park (located in southwestern Uganda). This is not as easy task as trackers every day have to follow the footsteps of the mountain gorillas until they get to a nest (resting place) and also do other examinations like on the dung of the gorillas. The most challenging part of the census is that every single day mountain gorillas build new resting places and therefore the enumerators have to be keen to avoid recounting.

The mountain gorilla census is done in phases and the first phase started in 2015 (October), which turned out a great success. The ongoing census is the second phase, which is looking forward to establish the accurate numbers as well as the age, size and the number of mountain gorilla groups in the Virunga massif. If all goes well, we shall know the mountain gorilla population in 2017.

The Census

This involves moving from one place to another searching for the gorillas just like normal tracking. The census involves a number of different teams (constantly communicating to one another) that move along the different trails in the forest until they locate a gorilla nest.

The fact that mountain gorillas build new nests everyday gives the enumerators a task of having to know how old the gorilla nest they have found is and usually if the nest has stayed for about 4 or 5 days then it might not be of great use because it makes it hard to get samples for testing the DNA. Sometimes however mountain gorillas build nests in a place they have ever been before do not return to the old nests and instead build new nests near the old ones.

When a nest has been slept in the previous night by a gorilla, it usually has waste (dung) or hair which are also used to establish the age, size and sex of the gorilla that slept in that nest. This is usually determined depending on the size of the dung which can help in telling the age of the gorilla which does not however tell the sex of the gorilla.

Examination of the gorilla dung is done carefully and the enumerators are not supposed to talk while examining the dung because it can be easy for their saliva to mix up with the dung and mess up the DNA results.

After getting a sample from the dung, it’s placed in a preservative (ethanol) and then later placed in another preservative (silica) which keeps it dry until it’s transferred to a laboratory for more in depth analysis. This analysis is usually done in Germany.

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