In this Sept. 4, 2019 photo, gorilla trackers Emmanuel Bizagwira, right, and Safari Gabriel observe two gorillas from the Agasha group as they play in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. George Schaller, a renowned biologist and gorilla expert, conducted the first detailed studies of mountain gorillas in the 1950s and early ‘60s, in what was then the Belgian Congo. He also was the first to discover that wild gorillas could, over time, become comfortable with periodic human presence, a boon to researchers and, later, tourists.
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Deep in the rainforest of Rwanda is the site of the longest-running gorilla study in the world.
A concerted and sustained conservation campaign has helped bring mountain gorillas back from the brink of extinction. That has meant monitoring every single gorilla in Volcanoes National Park.
“We record every activity in gorilla every day. And this is our daily report,” says gorilla tracker Emmanuel Bizagwira.
Veterinarians also monitor gorillas for wounds and signs of respiratory infections, and periodically intervene with veterinary care. When there’s a gorilla emergency, teams have to carry everything they might need in equipment bags weighing up to 100 pounds — including portable X-ray machines.
“We do all our clinical work in this forest. We don’t take animals outside the park,” says Jean Bosco Noheli, a veterinarian with Gorilla Doctors, a nonprofit.
Last fall, the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature changed the status of mountain gorillas from “critically endangered” to “endangered.”
The total number of mountain gorillas has risen from 680 a decade ago to just over 1,000 today. Their population is split between two regions running through Congo, Uganda and Rwanda — one of Africa’s smallest and most densely populated countries.
“If we manage to preserve the habitat and keep doing, investing our daily efforts in the conservation of that species, I think that population has a future, but it will not go without extreme conservation efforts,” says Winnie Eckardt with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
In 2005, the government adopted a model to steer 5% of tourism revenue from Volcanoes National Park to build infrastructure in surrounding villages, including schools and health clinics. The amount was increased to 10% starting in 2018. To date, about $2 million has gone into funding village projects.
The number of tourists per day is limited, and the price is steep: $1,500 per visit.
Each year Rwanda holds a naming ceremony for baby gorillas, called Kwita Izina, inviting celebrities to name gorillas born in the past 12 months. The celebration’s purpose is to spotlight conservation work and help people who attend to learn about gorillas.
“We don’t want to conserve or protect the park with guns. We want to protect and conserve this park with people who understand why and who take their responsibilities as well. And that is the only reason to really do, achieve sustainable conservation,” says Prosper Uwingeli, chief warden of Volcanoes National Park.
This Associated Press series was produced in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.