Mountain gorillas

Outgoing Uganda Minister of Tourism Wildlife & Antiquities, Prof. Ephrahim Kamuntu, yesterday unveiled the mountain gorilla populations in the Greater Virunga Conservation Area by declaring the long-awaited global number of the endangered species between Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. This was after the release of the December 2018 Census results released at the Kampala Serena International Conference Centre.

The unveiling was presented in collaboration with the Greater Virunga Transboundary and Bwindi-Sarambwe ecosystem revealing that the number of gorillas (gorilla beringei)  in the 340-square-kilometer boundary of protected forest to have increased to 459 in 50 groups and 13 individuals up from an estimated 400 in 2011.

Combined with the published results of the Virunga Mastiff 2015/16 survey of 604, the global figure stands at 1,063. Uganda has 51 percent of the total population and the remaining 49 percent shared between the three countries.

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This is the fifth count for this area and the first to include Sarambwe Nature Reserve since surveys began in the 1970s.

The Warden of the Ecological Monitoring and Research Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Area (BMCA), Joseph Arinitwe, said the process started from the eastern end of the forest to the Sarambwe Nature Reserve in the west.

It involved more than 75 trained survey members in 6 teams in 250 to 500-meter stretches with the support of local governments and communities living around the protected areas. They moved at standard intervals at agreed times in shifts of 2 weeks each collecting elephants, duikers, and gorillas fecal matter from fresh nests whereby samples were collected and preserved for genetic analysis. Additional publications are expected from the survey. Signs of human activity were also studied. The team persevered through challenging rugged terrain, floods, twigs, and insect bites.

Arinitwe emphasized the importance of surveys in monitoring trends and to prove that conservation strategies are working.

Dr. Pantaleon Kasoma who represented the Board of Trustee for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), reiterated the value of the income generated from the gorillas, noting that there are other conservation areas in the country that do not generate income that are sustained by revenue from gorillas.

Tourism State Minister Suubi Kiwanda lauded minister Kamuntu for his effort to turn around Human Wildlife Conflict into Human Wildlife Relationship having traversed the country to sensitize communities surrounding the National Parks and Wildlife corridors as well as revenue sharing.

Kamuntu welcomed the incoming Tourism Minister Tom Butime. Also in attendance were Japanese Ambassador to Uganda Kazuaki Kameda; Tourism State Minister Suubi Kiwanda; Permanent Secretary MTWA Doreen Katusime; Director of Tourism Mr. James Lutalo; Dr. Andrew Seguya, Executive Secretary at Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration; Dr. Gladys Kalema, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH); Executive Director UWA, Sam Mawanda; Director of Business Services UWA, Stephen Masaba; Professor Robert Bitariho of Mbarara University; and ITFC (Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation) and researchers.

Kamuntu stated, “The Constitution of The Republic of Uganda is enshrined to protect and promote important natural resources including land, air, wetlands, flora, and fauna on behalf of future generations.”

He said God created man and woman and gave the earth under man’s charge. “Therefore, we have custodial responsibility to conserve not only for Ugandans but for the entire human race.”

He lauded international organizations, stating that the gorillas would have been wiped out without their support. They include IGCP (International Gorilla Conservation Program), ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature), RDB (Rwanda Development Board), ITFC (The Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation), WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), CTPH (Conservation Through Public Health), Diane Fosey Gorilla Fund, WWF (World Wildlife Fund), BMCT (Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Trust), IGCP (The International Gorilla Conservation Program),Gorilla Doctors, and UC Davis.

In addition to gorillas, he said the country hosts the Big Five Plus Two – namely the gorillas and chimpanzees; 11 percent of bird species globally accounting for 50 percent of Africa’s species; 39 percent of mammals; 19 percent of amphibians; 1,249 species of butterflies; and 600 species of fish.

“Tourism is a transformative force fueling the development of Uganda with US$1.5 billion in foreign exchange earnings and 8 percent of the labour force with 10 percent of the landmass devoted to conservation,” said the minister.

The minister attributed the increase in gorilla numbers and wildlife in general as representing a positive path to development surpassing pre-independence numbers. However, he acknowledged the challenges that come with increasing numbers including pressure from human populations.

He reiterated that Uganda remains committed to the Greater Virunga Wildlife Transboundary Conservation, because the gorillas provide an example that we must remove borders between humans. Representatives from Rwanda and DRC were conspicuously absent.

Much as Ugandans had for centuries stayed with the gorillas, they were discovered in 1902 by Captain Robert von Beringe in his mission to map the boundaries of German East Africa (Tanzanyika). Gorillas were eventually brought to world attention by researcher Diane Fossey who inspired by Dr. Leakey dedicated and gave her life to research on the gorillas and the famous former “poacher dog,” Digit, the mountain gorilla with whom she formed a bond in life and death inspiring the 1988 drama “Gorillas in The Mist.”

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