The extremely rare mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park seem to have prospered during a warlord's reign over the refuge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to new census results
The population—made famous by a series of murders in 2007—has grown by nearly 13 percent in the last 16 months, despite having no protection from civil war or poaching for 15 months, park rangers said Monday.
"That the mountain gorilla population has increased in this environment is quite spectacular," said Emmanuel de Merode, head of the 680-strong Virunga ranger force.
The new tally brings the Virunga mountain gorillas to an estimated 211—including 10 babies born during the rangers' absence.
With some 720 wild mountain gorillas worldwide, the species is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
When rebels took control of Virunga in August 2007, the rangers were banished. They returned in November 2008, after park warden de Merode had negotiated a deal directly with the militia.
Recent efforts to educate locals and visitors about the importance of safeguarding the animals contributed to the population growth during the unstable period, de Merode said.
"It's the Congolese who demand that the mountain gorillas be protected," de Merode said. "The gorillas belong to them. They don't want their gorillas destroyed."
Gorillas Under Guerrillas
Strangely enough, the man most responsible for the rangers' long absence, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, may have also played a part in the conservation success.
Nkunda was arrested Thursday, but in an interview with National Geographic News last month, he had said his soldiers were committed to protecting the mountain gorillas: "I always tell my brothers that God provided Congo with the gorillas, and it's our duty to make sure we don't harm them." Nkunda's National Congress for the People's Defense (CNDP) has been accused of committing numerous human rights abuses, including the raping and killing of civilians.
There have been no reports of gorilla killings during the CNDP's rule over the volcano-studded park in late 2007 and 2008. In contrast, ten mountain gorillas were killed in four separate incidents when the Congolese government was largely in control in 2007.
As of about a week ago, Congolese government forces, after striking a deal with Rwandan forces and CNDP factions, are back in control of the region that includes the park.
(See photos of the Virunga gorillas in National Geographic magazine.)
Return of the Rangers
Shortly after the rangers were allowed to return to Virunga in November, they began the new census. More than 50 of them would take part in at least 128 patrols during the eight-week project.
The new census found 81 habituated mountain gorillas—gorillas used to humans—versus 72 in 2007. Based on a 2003 census, the park rangers estimate there are 120 non-habituated gorillas in Virunga, bringing Congo's mountain gorilla population to an estimated 211 individuals. Outside Congo, populations are found in Rwanda and Uganda.
All six of Virunga's habituated family groups have been found as well as three solitary silverbacks—older, dominant males known for their salt-and-pepper fur. Ten baby gorillas have been born into four of the families. Three gorillas known from previous censuses are still missing.
Last month a National Geographic News reporter joined a ranger patrol in search of the largest of Congo's habituated mountain gorilla groups, the Kabirizi family.
The patrol, led by ranger Jean-Baptiste Kadega, found the gorillas deep in the forest on a volcanic slope.
Scattered in the dense foliage, the gorillas appeared peaceful, unhurt—and fruitful.
The preponderance of Kabirizi youngsters stunned rangers near the beginning of the new census, when they found 5 healthy babies in this now 33-strong family. (See "RAW VIDEO: 'Phenomenal' Gorilla Baby Discovery in Congo" [December 2, 2008].)
Another group, the Rugendo family, had not been seen since August 2007. In July 2007 five of its members, including the silverback Senkwekwe, had been shot to death, execution style, in a massacre that made international headlines.
The rangers feared that, without the silverback, the group had disbanded.
Last month, however, the men were amazed to find that the Rugendos had grown from five to nine members, including two silverbacks vying for control.
"When we left the gorillas, we were very worried for their safety, because with the war, you never know where the bullets might fall," said ranger Innocent Mburanumwe, who led the Rugendo patrol.
"I'm very, very surprised and very, very happy to see this increase in the number of gorillas."
Despite the good news, conservation work in Virunga continues to be difficult and dangerous.
The rangers have worked throughout the civil war mostly without receiving their government salaries. More than 150 rangers have been killed in the last ten years protecting the five national parks of eastern Congo. (Related: "Inside the Gorilla Wars: Rangers on Risking It All" [June 16, 2008].) Earlier this month a militia attacking a Virunga outpost fatally shot ranger Safari Kakule. The rangers say they'll honor him in the same way they have honored many of his fallen colleagues: by naming a newborn mountain gorilla Kakule.
Photo: "Spectacular" Gorilla Growth in Congo, Despite War