Agence France-Presse & Discovery Channel – 2009-02-07 23:00:59
(January 27, 2009) — Mountain gorillas living in a war-torn region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have increased in number despite the bloody conflict, according to a new count released Tuesday.
The census — the first since specialized rangers were expelled by rebel forces from the Virunga National Park 16 months ago — showed a sub-population of gorillas used to humans had gone up from 72 to 81.
These so-called “habituated” gorillas are most at risk of being killed because they do not fear people.
They also inhabit regions strewn with snares laid to trap other forest fauna for food.
“We are relieved to see that instead of fewer gorillas, which we had feared, there are actually several more animals,” said Marc Languy of the WWF’s Eastern Africa Regional Problem.
Fifteen months passed without park rangers being able to monitor the gorillas.
But in December forces loyal to Congolese ex-general Laurent Nkunda — arrested last week by Rwandan forces — allowed the rangers to enter the Mikeno sector to resume monitoring.
While on patrol, they found more than 400 snares set by poachers targeting small forest antelope.
“This clearly indicates that conservation efforts must continue to save mountain gorillas which remain threatened, despite the good news brought by the latest count,” Languy said.
Experts estimate that the total population of mountain gorillas in the park at just under 400.
News last week from the only other natural habitat of the highly social primates, meanwhile, was not so good.
A new survey of gorillas living in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park found 10 percent fewer — 302 rather than 336 — than previous estimates.
This could mean that the gorilla population in the park is not growing, as previously assumed.
“Now we really don’t know what is happening with this population,” said Katerina Guschanski of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
“Probably the safest thing is to assume that the population is stable, but we will need to wait for another four of five years to assess how it is changing,” Guschanski told New Scientist magazine.
The latest census used a new method based on identifying unique genetic signatures, found in dung piles.
Many experts fear that the gorilla is facing extinction. The total population of mountain gorillas in the Great Lakes region of central Africa hovers around 700, according to the United Nations Environment Program.
The last decade has also seen a steep drop from 17,000 to 5,000 in the population of eastern lowland gorillas in the DRC.
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