Mountain gorillas – and the people who dedicate their lives to protecting them – have suffered a series of setbacks in recent months.

In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, which was already starting to take its toll on tourist income following the enforced suspension of gorilla visits in all three range states, a vicious attack by armed militia in Virunga National Park – Africa’s oldest national park and a World Heritage site – left 17 people dead, including 13 park staff.

As the park authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were still reeling from that horrific event, another tragedy was unfolding in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – also a World Heritage site and home to the only other population of mountain gorillas outside the Virunga Massif where Rwanda, Uganda and DRC converge.

Death of a silverback

A group of poachers entered the protected area with the attention of setting snares to catch duiker and bush pig. It is possible that they were resorting to poaching in the absence of other livelihood alternatives due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, or simply taking advantage of a reduced ranger presence. Whatever their motivation, their illegal encroachment into the forest brought them face to face with Rafiki, one of Bwindi’s most famous and best-loved silverbacks. The encounter ended in the gorilla being fatally wounded by a spear.

The devastating loss of Rafiki (left) reverberated far beyond Bwindi. Credit: Allan Carlson/WWF

The suspected perpetrators have since been arrested and are likely to receive severe sentences if convicted, but the damage is already done. In appalling circumstances, Uganda has lost one of its most iconic animals, whose economic and ecological value are inestimable and whose demise is a massive blow for conservation, research and tourism.

Throughout all three range states, the park authorities and their conservation partners are counting the cost of Covid-19 and desperately hoping that no more mountain gorillas – and, indeed, no more park staff – will pay the ultimate price.

In order to help restore stability, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is providing emergency support for the gorillas and their protectors, bringing to bear its considerable experience of working in conflict zones and in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Emergency response

Through the Rapid Response Facility, an emergency small-grants programme operated jointly with UNESCO to safeguard natural World Heritage sites, we are providing urgently needed funds to support mountain gorilla conservation in both Virunga National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

Emergency support for the Virunga Foundation – which manages the national park in conjunction with DRC’s wildlife authority, Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) – will ensure that conservation activities can continue, increase protection for rangers and other park staff, and support communities affected by the recent attack.

Ranger patrol in Virunga National Park, DRC. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

In Bwindi, an emergency grant will help safeguard mountain gorillas against the impact of Covid-19 and, in particular, against the risks of potentially disastrous disease transmission. This vital injection of funds will enable the Uganda Wildlife Authority to ensure Covid-safe interaction between park staff and the habituated gorilla groups that they continue to monitor closely.

It will also support extended patrolling to help combat the threat of an upsurge in poaching in Bwindi triggered by the economic shutdown, which has already resulted in the needless death of a prized silverback.

Frontline support

At the same time, FFI is also drawing on its recently launched Partner Crisis Support Fund to relieve the mounting pressure on the frontline organisations whose conservation efforts are pivotal to the survival of mountain gorillas.

For example, the suspension of gorilla tourism in DRC has left ICCN struggling to pay the salaries of the so-called ‘HuGo’ (Human Gorilla Conflict Resolution) rangers who are drawn from the communities around the park and play a crucial role in mountain gorilla conservation in DRC.

These rangers not only carry out essential patrols, but also act as a bridge between the park and local people, ensuring community support for conservation activities and helping to defuse potential conflict situations. As the impact of Covid-19 on local livelihoods increases the likelihood of people resorting to poaching and illegal use of forest resources, their presence is more vital than ever.

Snares laid to catch bush pig and deer also pose a threat to gorillas. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

Since they are already based in their villages near the park, the community rangers are ideally placed to maintain monitoring and patrol activities – including removal of snares and deterring poachers – despite current movement restrictions. Support from FFI’s crisis fund will enable them to continue operating throughout the current crisis, thereby ensuring that mountain gorilla populations remain protected.

In Rwanda, meanwhile, there are signs of light at the end of this long, dark tunnel. The government has recently announced a resumption of tourism activities after more than three months of inactivity due to the coronavirus lockdown.

At the same time, Rwanda has slashed the price of gorilla permits by up to 80% as the government endeavours to revive the tourism sector adversely hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. For the remainder of 2020, mountain gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park will cost foreign visitors US$500, while Rwandan citizens and foreign residents will pay US$200, with additional discounts for groups.

Gorilla-friendly pledge

This is a double-edged sword, of course, because a spike in tourist numbers could expose the mountain gorillas – as well as the rangers and guides – to a greater risk of disease transmission, endangering not only the gorillas themselves but also nearby communities. As parks begin to re-open it will be absolutely vital to take all possible precautions in order to ensure the safety of mountain gorillas, not only where Covid-19 is concerned but also in respect of other human-borne infections.

It is more vital than ever that tourists take precautions to guard against disease transmission. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

With this in mind, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) – a coalition that includes FFI – is calling on all visitors and tour operators to adhere to strict guidelines, including social distancing and the wearing of masks, and to sign its Gorilla-friendly Pledge.

The continued recovery of the mountain gorilla from the brink of extinction – which has seen the overall population rise to an unprecedented 1,063 individuals and led to its downlisting from Critically Endangered to Endangered on the IUCN Red List – is a fantastic and all-too-rare conservation success story.

It is vital that we do not allow the Covid-19 crisis to jeopardise that recovery. By helping to protect mountain gorillas from this latest threat, FFI is playing its part in ensuring the survival of this magnificent and irreplaceable great ape.