Essential Components of the Mountain Gorilla Success Story
Over the past five years the conservation community has successfully completed what, to date, have been the most intensive and comprehensive population surveys of mountain gorillas in their transboundary range in the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda.
Results of these surveys indicate the highest number of mountain gorillas recorded, and while the headlines focus on what are considered to be putative minimum counts (Virunga Massif: 604, Hickey et al. 2019a; Bwindi-Sarambwe: 459, Hickey et al. 2019b), robust population estimates that incorporate mark recapture analyses have also been recently published (Virunga Massif population, Granjon et al. 2020) or are in progress (Bwindi-Sarambwe population).
So, putting the evolution of survey methods and increased survey effort aside, how did growth in both populations happen? To what can this success at population and subspecies levels be attributed?
My position is that to focus on attribution does not adequately take into account the integrated approach to conservation of mountain gorillas which has been invested in over the long term by government agencies and bilateral donors, research institutions and non-governmental organizations, as well as the private sector and private donors.
Here, I offer my reflection as a practitioner, as the director of the coalition International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), on the essential components of the mountain gorilla success story - political will to support conservation, collaboration across borders, and community participation - and how we can build on these during the SARS CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic, and as part of recovery and resiliency for mountain gorilla conservation.
Political Will to Support Conservation
Political will has been generated across the mountain gorilla range. While largely born from the promise and delivery of mountain gorilla tourism as a source of foreign income and driver of economic growth, political will has also been built through thoughtful leadership at all levels, and the sense of shared responsibility to the mountain gorilla as central to local, national and regional identity.
The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of human and wildlife health is not yet known, nor the social and economic dimensions of the same, or how it might fundamentally change the tourism sector. Strategic decisions will need to be made to rebound economies and social sectors once the pandemic is over.
Strategic reform to the way mountain gorilla tourism is marketed, managed and monitored in each range State will be core to maintaining and building upon the political will to support conservation. Alongside this, a re-commitment, at all levels, to the tourism best practices (Homsy 1999; Macfie & Williamson 2010) which safeguard the subspecies and the sustainability of tourism in the long run will be key, together with ensuring that they are consistently implemented at all sites across the landscape.
This commitment to best practices goes beyond the use of face masks for all park staff, tourists, researchers and others in proximity to mountain gorillas, which was recently introduced in Rwanda and Uganda in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and already standard practice in DRC. It includes the serious attention to messaging, direction and supervision of how tourists are managed in proximity to mountain gorillas, to prevent what has become widely accepted as noncompliance to best practice in terms of tourist proximity to, and direct contact with mountain gorillas during visits (van Hamme et al. 2019).
While not the case at all sites nor in all circumstances, the mountain gorilla tourism product has slowly and notably strayed from the core principles of best practice due to a number of factors including complacency and the impact of a social media and selfie culture, as well as inappropriate marketing and personal and private interests. The pandemic should be a wake-up call for fundamental reforms to address this, and to eliminate the erosion of best practice which threatens both the gains of mountain gorilla conservation, and a growing tourism industry based on mountain gorilla viewing.
Further, political will to support conservation is nothing without good governance, and ensuring that conservation efforts reinforce and support good governance at all levels is a critical component going forward. This will mean more emphasis is given to championing transparency and accountability.
Collaboration across Borders
Hard-wired into the conservation of mountain gorillas over the last 30 years has been transboundary collaboration, among park staff and managers, among institutions and agencies, and even among community-based organizations. These efforts, and various achievements, have waxed and waned over the years, but remain the cornerstone of effective mountain gorilla conservation efforts from protection to gorilla population monitoring to sharing and scaling up successful approaches.
Established in 2015, the intergovernmental Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration is the framework for formal collaboration across borders, and greater human, social and political investments are needed to ensure it fulfills its intended purpose under the signed Treaty.
Collaboration is built on trust, which is achieved through dialog, information sharing and having clear shared objectives. It is now more than ever that strategic partnerships, including civil society and the private sector, are formed allowing for the framework to effectively deliver during this crisis period - in the coordination of the development and implementation of a contingency plan, and the mobilization of political and financial support as we emerge from this crisis.
We should be able to go beyond the basics of transboundary collaboration and start to push this even further through freely sharing information, pooling important data to look at trends in threats monitoring, and implementing strategies at the regional level - including better collaboration on tourism development. This is the only way we will be able to continue to sustain the mountain gorilla success story into the future.
In addition to small populations in restricted, protected transboundary habitat, a key element of the context of mountain gorilla conservation is that this habitat exists in a larger landscape with incredibly dense rural and peri-urban human populations. Due to fertile soils, and the promise of employment by the parks or in the tourism sector, some areas see in-migration as well as population growth.
The effect of insecurity and conflict which has afflicted the region, and can be especially volatile in transboundary zones, must also be recognized. In those tragic situations, as well as the pandemic crisis today resulting in the suspension of travel and tourism, the circumstances require downscaling of park and conservation partner activities to only essential functions, for safety as well as context sensitivity.
Through these acute periods of uncertainty, the commitment of individuals and the wider park edge communities toward the protection of mountain gorillas is notable, with community members providing important monitoring information to park authorities should the mountain gorillas stray out of the park, or if a specific threat to the mountain gorillas emerges. We have to work as a conservation community to build on this when and where we can so that we can continue to depend on this key constituency providing direct essential functions to gorilla protection and larger conservation efforts.
To learn from what works, and to optimize community participation in conservation we need to have greater focus on decision-making processes and inclusion, rather than a sole focus on development or livelihood initiatives, paying special attention to those who have been left out of these processes in the past.
Coming out of this crisis, IGCP plans to continue to support park authorities to use the Social Assessment of Protected and Conserved Areas (Franks et al. 2018) to inform community engagement and enhance participation within park edge communities. The process identifies areas of concern and areas of opportunity related to the relationships between parks and people, and between park authorities and local people. Through this identification and dialog, and with commitment from all parties, these issues can be constructively worked on to achieve more positive relationships and outcomes, including greater equity and transparency in the allocation of limited resources.
There are a number of incredibly exciting scientific questions regarding mountain gorilla population dynamics and disease yet to be investigated using the enormous datasets collaboratively generated through the recent population surveys. For example, understanding the presence of various pathogens (like viruses and parasites) not only in monitored individuals, but throughout the population, and how this may have changed over time, as well as demographic changes, such as group size and structure. Leveraging this knowledge to orient and assess conservation strategies will be a cornerstone of mountain gorilla conservation in both the near and long term.
Even prior to the current pandemic, there was recognition that the reclassification of the mountain gorilla's threat status to Endangered from Critically Endangered represented a fragile success. Right now, the focus is that we avoid and mitigate the direct risk to mountain gorillas, conservation personnel and park edge communities from the emergent coronavirus, and that moving forward we come together and further entrench the critical elements outlined above into not only an informed, but also fully integrated, conservation action plan.
Anna Behm Masozera
I thank Dr. Liz Williamson, Dr. Margaret Kinnaird, Dr. Michel Masozera, and Jessica Farish for their review and contributions to this article.
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Granjon, A. C. et al. (2020): Estimating abundance and growth rates in a wild mountain gorilla population. Anim. Conserv. doi.org/10.1111/acv.12559
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Hickey, J. R. et al. (2019b): Bwindi-Sarambwe 2018 Surveys: monitoring mountain gorillas, other select mammals, and human activities. GVTC, IGCP & partners, Kampala, Uganda
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Macfie, E. J. & Williamson, E. A. (2010): Best Practice Guidelines for Great Ape Tourism. IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, Gland, Switzerland
van Hamme, G. et al. (2019): Keep Your Distance: Using Social Media to Evaluate the Risk of Disease Transmission in Gorilla Ecotourism. 8th European Federation for Primatology Meeting. 2019 Primate Society of Great Britain Winter Meeting Oxford, UK, September 8-11, 2019