First Photo of a Silverback Gorilla in the Itombwe Nature Reserve

Categories: Journal no. 66, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Itombwe, Grauer's Gorilla

The solitary silverback at the edge of the Itombwe Nature Reserve (© ICCN Itombwe)

The Itombwe Nature Reserve (IRN) is one of the protected areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is located in the Itombwe forest (GPS coordinates 670091/9633034) and is under the management of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN). The INR was created with the aim of conserving flagship species, animals whose populations were in a state of severe decline due to habitat loss as a result of anthropogenic activities. Prominent species, whose populations are continuously monitored, are forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis), Grauer's (or eastern lowland) gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) and buffalo (Syncerus caffer). The aim of the management of the INR is: Participatory protection of the physical integrity of the INR in order to conserve its biodiversity, its ecosystem services and its cultural and socio-economic values - while respecting gender dimensions and the rights of local residents and indigenous peoples - for the benefit of the local, national and international community.

In 1996, a systematic great ape inventory was conducted by ICCN and WCS. An ornithological study was also undertaken. The results of these surveys revealed that over the last 25 years the estimated number of eastern lowland gorillas had decreased from nearly 17,000 to 6,800 individuals. This was a consequence of the minimal effort made to protect these primates. The recommendations that came out of this work, in combination with recommendations made by IUCN in 1992 and 1993, resulted in the reserve being created in 2006. However, its boundaries were not clear. In 2016 the reserve's boundaries were properly defined following participatory demarcation work with all stakeholders (local population, civil society, ICCN and its partners).

It is fair to note that this participatory definition of the reserve's boundaries does not guarantee the conservation of the reserve's biodiversity - rather that conservation depends on the human and logistical resources allocated to the reserve. Unfortunately, the resources allocated to the reserve are far from what is required to ensure the conservation of the reserve's habitats and biodiversity or to reach conservation targets. For example, the number of gorillas in the Mwana Valley dropped from 211 to 73 between 1996 and 2020 (source: Small Initiatives Program, PPI, French Environment Fund, FFEM).

The number of conservation officers remained too low to protect an area of 5,737 km². The INR has a staff of 41, 23 of whom are charged with the protection of biodiversity. To help overcome the shortage in the number of eco-guards, Africapacity, in collaboration with ICCN, supported the training of 114 community guards during 2020 and 2021. This was undertaken through ICCN's partner community structures: the Community Conservation Management Board (CGCC) at the level of each chiefdom and the Community Conservation Committee (CCC) at the community level, which provide civilian patrols in the reserve. Of the participants in the community patrols, 90 are at the disposal of their respective chiefdoms without supervision or backing. Those in the Itombwe sector, 24 in total, benefit from some supervision by a local structure called Itombwe Generation for Humanity, IGH. Even so, these community patrols are determined to support the ICCN eco-guards in their efforts to secure the INR.

Results from major patrols between 2019 and 2022

The 2008 census of gorillas in Itombwe provided information on the zones where these primates occur, enabling the monitoring patrols to focus on these areas.

In 2019, four monitoring patrols were carried out by eco-guards and community guards, two in March and two in August. The patrols observed evidence of the presence of at least four gorilla families and a solitary individual in the Mulambozi sector, towards Mukunguzi, Walembe, Ishasho and in the Mwana Valley sector, in Kabelukwa, Makutano, Namasalakoma, in the Ulindi sector towards Kigogo to Muhuzi. Groups of 9, 10, 12, and 14 nests were observed in these areas plus one single nest. Between the 10th July and the 8th August, a community patrol noted 44 observations of droppings, nests and food remains.

In 2020, seven patrols were conducted, of which three were in the Mulambozi sector, two in the Ulindi sector, and one each in the Mwana sector and Kiboyoka. In the Mulambozi sector, on the Byomoa-Kiwandawanda axis, signs of two gorilla families were observed, one of 12 individuals and one of two, plus one solitary gorilla. On the Ishasho-Akyekya-Nam'nywabui-Byelele axis, 7 gorilla nests and 21 tracks were noted. No details were given.

In the Chirere sub-sector of the Ulindi sector, tracks have been noted on the Nshoko and Kacheche Mountains and in the areas called Bisika, Manguba and Kaku. Groups of two, five, six and seven nests were observed in these areas. On the axis of Ilibo, Muliza and Kanyololo two gorilla tracks, one recent and the other old, were noted between the 22nd and 29th July 2020.

In 2021, three patrols were conducted in June and August, two in the Mulambozi sector and one in the Elila sector. Four signs (tracks), faeces and eight gorilla nests were observed in the Mulambozi sector. No trace of any great apes was observed in the Elila sector.

In 2022, three patrols carried out in the Ulindi, and Elila sectors in May, September and October did not find any signs of the presence of gorillas. Only the January patrol in the Mulambozi sector reported signs of gorillas, nests and the remnants of food.

Attempts at filming gorillas in Itombwe

Several attempts to film gorillas were made without results. The first was in September 2017 during a filming mission by the WWF in Kitopo in the Mulambozi sector. The gorillas fled when approached by the film crew and the only images captured were blurry. Another attempt was made in March 2019 during a joint patrol of eco-guards and community members. A family who had slept in nine nests was approached, but as they were not habituated they fled before even a photo could be taken. In June 2020, an infrared camera trap was placed at the foot of a tree on Makyimingi hill in the Mulambozi sector. When it was checked, no images of gorillas had been obtained.

Photographing the gorillas remained a dream of the INR eco-guards until recently. Then, the population of villages near the Mulambozi sector ranger station towards the triangular axis of villages Lugundu-Kiwandawanda-Zombe reported the presence of an aggressive gorilla that often visited the forest edge and adjacent fields. During a patrol in June 2021, the eco-guards finally managed to take a photograph of the face of this lone silverback despite its grimaces and threats: the first time since the creation of the INR 15 years previously. It was an opportunity for the managers and eco-guards of the INR and their partners to congratulate each other. To monitor this gorilla regularly and to promote ecotourism in the INR, habituating this gorilla to the presence of humans is of the utmost importance. When foraging, the gorilla often finds itself face to face with passers-by.

We hope that monitoring efforts in the INR will not be reduced, despite insufficient support for patrol rations and equipment. WWF withdrew from the INR at the end of the CARPE project, meaning that no equipment has been provided since 2019, and the last donation of eco-guard uniforms dates back to 2016. The glaring shortages of uniforms, GPSs, medical supplies, vehicles, tents, tarpaulins, sleeping bags, backpacks, boots, bush rations and camp staff are constraints for tent patrols in particular and hinder the work to protect biodiversity in general.

John Baliwa Ngoy and Claude Sikubwabo Kiyengo