Earlier this month, one of just 20 rare gorillas living in the forests of Mt Tshiaberimu, in the northern annex of Virunga National Park, DR Congo, was found dead. This is the second gorilla from this unique and critically endangered population to have died in three months, and the Gorilla Organization, which manages the Mt Tshiaberimu Conservation Project, is seriously concerned that the two deaths could be the result of a contagious disease.
Molo, an adult female gorilla from the Kipura family, was found dead on 10 May, just 13 weeks after the death of Mughole, an adult female from the same family. Park rangers carried Molo’s body for five hours to get her to the outskirts of the park where a vet was able to carry out an autopsy without delay. The autopsy was inconclusive but further analysis is still being done on tissue samples sent to the US.
Jillian Miller, the Gorilla Organization’s director said, “What worries us most is that Molo is not the first gorilla to have died at Mt Tshiaberimu this year - we are gravely concerned that these tragic deaths are linked”.
Miller continued, “The population of gorillas at Mt Tshiaberimu is extremely rare and fragile, not to mention the fact that only 19 individuals now remain – if a contagious disease takes hold it will be touch and go whether the gorillas will survive”.
Gorilla veterinary expert, Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, said, “The situation at Mt Tshiaberimu is becoming an emergency. We need to find out what has caused these deaths and how we can stop the remaining gorillas getting ill.”
When the first gorilla died the mountain was immediately closed to visitors and all Gorilla Organization field staff were vaccinated as a preventative measure. An in-depth medical survey was conducted amongst the gorilla population, the park rangers, the local communities and their livestock, and plans for ongoing health monitoring were put in to place.
Mt Tshiaberimu is a geographically isolated area of the Virungas National Park – the gorillas exist in a remote island of forest surrounded by bustling local communities and extensive farmland. The gorillas occasionally come out of the forest to forage in the local fields, putting them in contact with diseases that they would not normally encounter. In areas like this where wildlife, people and livestock intersect, a downturn in any one can seriously erode the health and wellbeing of the others.
To this end the Gorilla Organization has launched an emergency appeal to immediately address the health needs of the gorillas, the local communities and livestock. The appeal hopes to raise over £50,000 to:
- provide further training to the park wardens, rangers, and field research assistants in gorilla health monitoring, so they are able to recognise even the smallest of signs that would suggest that the gorillas are unwell.
- establish a field laboratory in this remote area of DR Congo so that medical samples can be taken and tested regularly.
- promote good health and better hygiene practices throughout the local communities through a series of workshops, radio broadcasts and posters in the local language.
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The Gorilla Organization has been working with the tiny population of gorillas and the local communities at Mt Tshiaberimu for over 11 years. When the project first started just 16 gorillas lived on the mountain and the long term survival prospects of the population was of deep concern. Gorilla monitoring patrols and community development projects have seen the population steadily increase over the years and at the beginning of 2008 the population stood at a more encouraging 21. The loss of two breeding females brings the population’s future in to question once again.
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