The Greater Virunga landscape, a mountainous area straddling the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, is the last refuge of mountain gorillas in the world.
For years, the national parks and protected areas in the region have provided sanctuary to the great apes, which are among the most endangered creatures on Earth. But climate change and the economic devastation of COVID-19 are driving people deeper into gorilla territory in a hunt for timber, food and other resources – which could imperil conservation efforts.
Gorillas, the second-closest animal relatives to humans, have roamed the equatorial regions of Africa for millennia. But poaching and agricultural expansion devastated the population in the past few decades, with the number of mountain gorillas in the Virunga volcanoes plunging to as low as 250 in 1981.
Conservation efforts have helped gorilla numbers rebound to around 1,000 individuals, with 580 in the Virunga volcanoes area and a population of a similar size in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. While the International Union for the Conservation of Nature changed the Red List status of mountain gorillas from “critically endangered” to “endangered” in 2018, progress remains fragile.
In June 2020, Rafiki, a 25-year-old silverback leading the Nkuringo gorilla troop in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, was killed by poachers who said they were hunting for bushmeat. This was the first such incident in close to 10 years.
“Gorilla-related tourism, a key source of income for local communities, dried up amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Johannes Refisch, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) expert on mountain gorillas and Coordinator of the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP).
“As a result, we have seen an increase in illegal activities, as desperate community members enter the parks in search of wild meat, bamboo, timber and other commodities.”
While mountain gorillas are rarely killed for meat, they can become the casualties of poaching, for example, by getting accidentally snared in traps meant to capture other species. This risk could increase if local communities’ food security and livelihoods keep deteriorating, not only because of loss of tourism, but also the added pressures of climate change and population growth.
UNEP’s Vanishing Treasures programme in the Greater Virunga landscape, implemented by GRASP, supports gorilla conservation and local community development in the Nkuringo buffer zone on the southwestern border of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
The killing of Rafiki was not an isolated human-wildlife incident. A July 2021 UNEP-World Wildlife Fund report reveals that globally, conflict-related killing affects more than 75 per cent of the world’s wild cat species, as well as many other terrestrial and marine species, such as polar bears and elephants.
Nkuringo has also witnessed human-wildlife conflict, in large part due to crop raiding by wild animals. Farmland near national parks often provides easy-to-access forage for wildlife, which in turn impacts food supply and livelihoods of the local communities. Species such as buffaloes, elephants and golden monkeys have become notorious for damaging crops.
Tourism has also allowed gorillas to become habituated to people, prompting them to encroach on farmland surrounding national parks, including the Nkuringo gorilla troop, who have been known to leave the park in search of fruits and leafy vegetables cultivated by communities.
“This can feed antagonistic sentiment towards protected area authorities and decrease people’s tolerance of conservation, potentially leading to more poaching or illegal natural resource harvesting,” said Refisch.
The Great Apes Survival Partnership works with businesses and local authorities to promote conflict-sensitive solutions through environmental peacebuilding. The ‘buffer zone’ approach seeks to protect the forest and the ecosystem services it provides, while keeping the animals inside park boundaries, and generating employment and income for local communities through agriculture, including the production of tea as a cash crop.
UNEP and partners are also supporting local governments to keep track of illegal activity. In 2016, GRASP launched the Great Apes Seizures Database, an online reporting tool to monitor the illegal trade in live animals, body parts and bushmeat. The tool helps to identify potential crime hotspots and data can inform better enforcement.
Climate change fallout
There are fears human-wildlife conflict could mount as the climate in Central Africa changes. Average temperatures in Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo could rise by up to 1.4°C by 2040, according to a brief published by UNEP’s Vanishing Treasures programme.
According to a community survey conducted recently 83 per cent of households in areas surrounding the park have already experienced drought, 90 per cent reported low crop yields and 81 per cent suffered from food insecurity.
“Increased temperatures and water shortages could make farming less viable, forcing locals to extract the parks’ resources to make ends meet. Less rainfall could compel people to venture into national parks to collect water, wild meat, fodder for cattle, fruits, or medicinal plants, leading to further environmental stress and interference with mountain gorillas,” said Refisch.
“We need to expand revenue streams for local communities beyond tourism to better secure livelihoods,” said Doreen Robinson, Chief of Wildlife at UNEP. “This means investing in locally-protected areas and ensuring that benefits are shared with the communities protecting the wildlife and natural assets.”
In the Greater Virunga region, UNEP and partners are working with local communities on compensation schemes for human-wildlife conflict, tourism revenue-sharing, the sustainable use of selected natural resources, and outreach and communication.
More broadly, in Africa, UNEP is working with governments and private sector partners to encourage wildlife-based economies where local communities are central to protecting the wild areas they inhabit, for the mutual benefit of both. This includes going beyond tourism to attract green investment in wildlife areas, like using natural resources to produce consumer goods in a sustainable way.
World Gorilla Day on 24 September is an opportunity to raise awareness of the threats facing gorillas, as well as the humans who live nearby, and the symbiotic relationship between the two. UNEP has led and supported two landmark international agreements that are contributing to the conservation of gorillas and other endangered species: the Convention on Migratory Species includes a Gorilla Agreement, which provides governments and other parties with a legally-binding framework to maintain and restore gorilla populations and their habitats. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda are among the eight parties to the agreement.
Meanwhile, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulates international trade in over 38,700 species of plants and animals.
UNEP’s Vanishing Treasures programme in the Greater Virunga Landscape is implemented by the Great Apes Survival Partnership and funded by the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. It works in partnership with the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.