Gorillas at Mt T on the increase
01 July 2004
Good news for the gorillas of the Mountain of the Spirits. ChifunderaKusamba and the gorilla monitoring team at the Mount TshiaberimuConservation Project in DR Congo have recorded two new gorilla birthsin recent months, bringing the total population for this remote andisolated group to 20 gorillas.
Thisrepresents a dramatic increase on the 14 to 16 gorillas estimated byresearchers in1996 when the project began, and, if viewed over thelong-term, indicates that the population may have turned a corner andreversed its decline.
Although George Schaller estimated theremay have been as many as 80 gorillas at Mount Tshiaberimu in the early1960s, Conrad Aveling's census in 1986 counted no more than twenty andby 1996 the number had dropped to just 16. According to EstebanSarmiento, who conducted the 1996 survey along with Tom Butynski andVital Katembo, the population may have been maintaining itself at 11 to14 individuals for quite some time. He also told Digit News that therewere gorillas about 10 miles south of Mount Tshiaberimu when Schallerworked there in 1961 but that the nearest these days are in the forestsbehind Lubero, about 30-40 miles away.
Wildlife AuthorityDirector Norbert Mushenzi is delighted with the news of the births.Having heard the doubts of those who said the Mount Tshiaberimupopulation was on a hiding to nothing, he is hopeful for the future.
Sincethe births the gorillas have settled into five distinct groups, eachwith its own ranging area. They are the Lusenge family, led by thesilverback Nzanzu, which has fivemembers including the infantMusanganya; the Kipura family, under the leadership of Tsongo, whichalso has five members including the new infant Kambula; the threemember Safari family; a mother and infant known as the Tungu family;and five single males in an all bachelor group.
Are theymountain gorillas or lowland gorillas? The taxonomic status of thegorillas at mount Tshiaberimu has been a matter for conjecture sincethey were first described by Schwarz in 1927. Noting their apparentlysmaller physique than the mountain gorillas of the Virunga Massif tothe south, he called them a unique sub species, Gorilla gorillarex-pygmaeorum, although this has since been refuted by otherresearchers claiming they are Eastern lowland gorillas, Gorillaberingei graueri, with no significant size difference. New researchfrom the Max Planck Institute in Germany is also inconclusive,indicating broad similarities with other eastern lowland populationsbut calling for more sampling for further DNA analysis.
Eitherway the news is exciting and the researchers do not rule out thepossibility that the Mount Tshiaberimu gorillas may yet turn out to beunique.