Habitat loss. Poaching. Illegal trapping. Disease. War. By all accounts, the mountain gorilla should have followed the same tragic path as most other endangered species when faced with similar threats: extinction.
Though the loss of any species is irreparable, the loss of the mountain gorilla would be particularly significant for their wildlife ecosystem, the Central African economy and all of humanity. Mountain gorillas live in unique forests that are home to a variety of important wildlife species found only in that region. However, it's their status as our evolutionary cousins–gorillas and humans share 98% of DNA—and that makes them particularly worth our study, our care, and our efforts to maintain mountain gorilla conservation.
“All species are integral parts of the ecosystem in which they live. When any one species is lost, it affects the whole ecosystem,” said Tara Stoinski, president, CEO, and chief scientific officer for Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. For more than 30 years, Oracle has funded the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, providing cash grants and donations of technology and services to support the study and protection of gorillas and their habitat.
“If the mountain gorilla disappears, it is likely a signal that the entire forest ecosystem is endangered, along with other important animals as well as plants. And as great apes, gorillas are one of our closest relatives, so we'd also lose the opportunity to learn from them, to compare them to our species and other great apes, and to study important aspects of life.”
Each ecosystem on our planet has been carefully balanced over tens of thousands or even millions of years; the abrupt loss of one species may cause a chain reaction that can alter the landscape in unpredictable ways for both humans and nature alike. That means conservation of endangered species and their critical ecosystems is at the root of protecting all life, including humans.
When conservationists focus on a specific species like the mountain gorilla, the work they do is intimately involved in solving important human issues. Their primary threat is habitat loss due to deforestation—and, as nearby communities continue to grow and struggle with their own economic and agriculture issues, there’s constant pressure to expand into gorilla habitat and turn lush forests into productive farmland. In addition, these remote communities require wood to build homes and burn as fuel for cooking. As a result, it’s easy for the people most affected—and who have greatest ability to impact gorilla protection—to see the mountain gorilla as a competitor for limited natural resources, rather than something that should be protected.
As local communities build roads and encroach further and further into national parks in Rwanda and Uganda, it has become easier for humans to also use that land for hunting. Sometimes, that means poaching. Though it’s illegal to hunt, trade and eat gorilla and other apes, a lack of resources for law enforcement and anti-poaching makes gorilla hunting difficult to eliminate. The economic payoff is often worth the risk: Because it is rare, gorilla meat fetches top dollar in urban areas where the delicacy is seen as a symbol of prestige among the wealthy and elite. Gorillas are also poached in attempts to capture infant gorillas for the live animal trade.
Gorillas are also frequently collateral damage in the otherwise-legal hunting and trapping that people rely on to feed their families and make a living. Snares are often left out to catch antelope, wild pigs, and other animals, but can just as easily accidentally injure or kill a mountain gorilla.
Yet, there's more: Because of their similar DNA to humans, mountain gorillas are at risk for many diseases that affect us without the benefits of our immunities, vaccines or medicines. As humans encroach into what was once an isolated habitat, they bring diseases with them–and gorillas are getting their first exposure to diseases humans have been living with for thousands of years. Just as disease wiped out native human populations when European explorers brought them to the Americas, these diseases can quickly decimate a gorilla population. Tourists, poachers, locals, park rangers and scientists alike all pose threats through direct contact or through contamination by waste and debris left behind.
And though habitat loss, hunting and disease impact many endangered species, the mountain gorilla have also had to struggle with the effects of war. The Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo regions have experienced numerous armed conflicts between the army and militia groups vying for control. While the wars have been a brutal human tragedy, gorillas have equally suffered. They’ve been caught in crossfire, hunted for meat to feed soldiers or refugees, or shot purely for sport. In addition, the presence of armed militias makes it difficult for park rangers and scientists to undertake the conservation work required to conduct surveys and patrol protected areas.
To save these primates, conservationists have had to show that conservation isn’t an “either/or” proposition between humans and nature; what’s good for the gorillas is what’s good for the surrounding community. During the past five decades, conservation efforts have focused on more than just the species alone by looking at how economic development and education play a unique role.
Gorilla tourism provides the money necessary to staff and operate the country’s protected national parks, create jobs, fund schools and address needs of local people like food scarcity, malnutrition, water, and healthcare. The more those basic needs can be met, the less need there is in the long-term to use gorilla habitat for farming, hunting, firewood, and water. When humans flourish, so do endangered species, and vice versa.
In addition, each year hundreds of university students from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo visit conservation areas to learn about the gorillas, their habitat, conservation methods and more. By inspiring the next generation of scientists, teachers, politicians and community leaders now, they will, in turn, prioritize the continued protection of the mountain gorilla in the decades to come.By incorporating community-building into conservation efforts, communities can become a part of the conservation effort itself. For the mountain gorilla, the results speak for themselves: Whereas still critically endangered, the mountain gorilla population is estimated today to be about 880 individuals, up from 254 gorillas in the early 1980s. Although there is still much work to be done, it's an encouraging sign for the mountain gorilla as a species and the planet as a whole.