Bwindi Forest National Park Uganda

The ongoing 2018 Mountain Gorilla Census in Bwindi National park

The ongoing 2018 Mountain Gorilla Census in Bwindi National park

Uganda is a well known destination for gorilla safaris and has about half of the remaining population of mountain gorillas – most of which are found in Bwindi impenetrable forest park. Mountain gorillas are listed under the IUCN Redbook as critically endangered and hence there is considerable interest in knowing their current numbers among gorilla researchers, conservationists, local communities and tourists.

Dian Fossey initiated the counting of individual mountain gorillas on a small scale back in the 1970s while studying the primates within the Virunga Region in Rwanda and Congo. Counting of mountain gorillas in Bwindi only started in 1997 but the population of has increased significantly to about 430 individuals according to the last census in 2011 – thanks to sustained gorilla conservation efforts. The current ongoing census in Bwindi is raising excitement and expectation that their numbers will increase even further after the final tallying of results. The census in Bwindi is part of a wider regional exercise that begun in 2017 in the Virunga region of Rwanda and DR Congo – The final results are yet to be officially published.

What is this ongoing 2018 Gorilla census in Bwindi all about? Who is involved?

The governments of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda with the support of gorilla conservation Agencies usually conduct a gorilla census every five years. A gorilla census involves a complete count of each individual gorilla in a park. A complete count ensures that the exact number of individual gorillas in an area is known to the world.  The results from the census can also help determine if the overall population is increasing or decreasing, general health issues and if there are any potential human threats to the gorillas. Moreover, Gorilla researchers, conversations and funders can gauge the success of their conservation efforts and come up with better strategies to ensure the continued survival and success of the species.

The current 2018 census in Bwindi like those undertaken in the past is done as part of an agreed framework of collaboration with gorilla conservation authorities in Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo such as the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the Rwanda Development Board and L’Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN). The census is being led by the International Gorilla Conservation Program and is funded by Fauna and Flora International, WWF, Partners in Conservation at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Other notable institutes involved in the Bwindi Gorilla Census include the Dian Fossey Foundation, Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Trust, Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, Wildlife Conservation Society Uganda Country Office, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Conservation through Public Health.

With this kind of commitment, support and generous contributions towards the 2018 Bwindi gorilla Census, we expect not only an increase in the gorilla population in Bwindi impenetrable forest but an overall impact in Uganda’s tourism industry – gorilla safaris in particular.

How the 2018 Gorilla Census is being carried out in Bwindi

The 2018 gorilla census in Bwindi is divided into two phases – March and October. Participants have been divided into 12 teams with only 6 (in 3 camps) in the forest at a time. Dr. Winnie Eckardt who is a Senior Researcher with the Dian Fossey Fund along with other Research experts from Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo helped conduct the initial training. After the training, the team that includes staff from international and local organizations, park wardens, trackers, rangers and researchers are combing the forest following trails used by the gorillas to look for night nests and fecal samples. The census involves observing family movement patterns, evidence of forest/park encroachments, any poaching activities and information about other forest animals.

The collected fecal samples are preserved in ethanol and should be tested to find DNA that identifies specific individuals in a group and wider population. Apart from DNA, fecal samples can also help determine any diseases and parasites found in a particular group in an area. All steps have been taken to ensure that individuals are not counted twice. Dr. Winnie Eckardt ensures that the data is gathered and entered into the system accurately. The teams are working under strenuous and challenging conditions characterized by thick vegetation, rugged terrain, steep hills/valleys and rivers. The census team also has to deal with the fact that Bwindi’s gorillas cover a wider range and many of the gorilla families are not habituated.

When completed, the results from the 2018 gorilla Census in Bwindi will be merged with that carried out from other parks in the greater Virunga region parks to arrive at the correct number of mountain gorillas remaining in the wild.