Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Kahuzi-Biega National Park

21 December 2015

Categories: Homepage News, Primates Campaign News

Over Christmas, Gorilla Family and Me, a two-part wildlife documentary following the life of an eastern lowland gorilla family in Kahuzi-Biega National Park will be aired.

The Born Free Foundation has been supporting Chimanuka and his family since 2000 and in October this year, I had the great privilege of visiting them in eastern DRC. Before I joined Born Free I spent many years studying chimpanzees across Africa and working towards their conservation but I had never had the opportunity of observing gorillas.

We were walking through thick bamboo forest when we heard the roar. “We must stay quiet and keep our distance” my guide told me, “Chimanuka’s family is mixed up with Mufanzala’s and they might fight.” We continued walking, passing the signs of Chimanuka’s recent passage: the remnants of digging for bamboo shoots. Then we heard a gorilla chest beating, a hollow rhythmic sound like two coconut shells being struck together. Before we saw him we caught his pungent but not unpleasant smell and then there he was, in his prime, with his stately magnificence- beady eyes, over-pronounced brow ridge and thinly set lips - surrounded by a cluster of females and their young. He stood and began to move, a body packed with muscle: that oversized head and powerful shoulders took the lead, followed by the silver concave curve of his back, then a black voluptuous rump. But despite his size he shifted his gaze away from us. He looked away, he hid his face; he turned his back, self-consciously. In contrast to the chimpanzee he was a gentle giant, a shy and sensitive soul, committed only to his clan, and this is what stood out most for me.

Then his juvenile son approached and with the cock-sure curiosity of youth gave me a hard and penetrating stare before standing against a tree he beat his chest. He scoured the vegetation for his father and then ran onwards, through the bamboo and the undergrowth and was gone.

But, in the 1990s, this region of eastern DRC was beset with tragedy and civil unrest. After the Rwanda genocide in 1994, Hutu refugees fled to Congo and settled around the park and as Mobutu’s regime toppled, ethnic tension led to savage civil war. At the same time, a sharp rise in the price of coltan, as a result of an increase in global demand for mobile phones, computers and play stations half a world away, lead to a boom in artisanal mining, which fuelled the war. The wildlife, including the gorillas in the park, was decimated as a result. Over a three year period the eastern lowland gorilla population plummeted from an estimated 17,000 to a low of just a few thousand.

Despite severe challenges and set-backs the ICCN (The Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation) has continued to operate in one capacity or another and for the last few years Born Free has supported gorilla monitoring in the Tshivanga Highland sector of the park. Our work is vital. Every individual in every group in the highlands is accounted for on a daily basis. Individuals are being identified and catalogued and in addition, the health of all the gorillas is monitored.  This research is intensive, such is the fear of poaching but gorilla numbers in this sector are increasing as a result. There is reason to hope but there is also a collective determination among park staff to protect these gorillas. Mr Radar Nishuli is a park director on a mission and one with a vision for the wildlife and the park and his staff as well. He is as formidable a leader as the gorillas he protects.

The highlands cover just a small proportion of the park; the majority of its 6,000 km2 occupies the lowlands further west. It is an isolated and much less secure area, hard to reach by road but it is exploited nonetheless, as forest elsewhere disappears. Militia groups sporadically occupy sections of it making it difficult for the rangers to patrol. Despite their very best efforts, apes here are yet to fully benefit from the protection one would expect a national park to afford but nonetheless the park and its partners including Born Free are now turning their sights to this area. It is a daunting task but the plan is to safe-guard the remaining gorillas in the lowlands, as well as those in the highlands.

Please help us keep Chimanuka, his family and the other gorillas of Kahuzie-Biega National Park safe by adopting our gorilla family.

Liz Greengrass

Programmes Manager Field Conservation

Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

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