Extreme Conservation of Gorillas

An Interview with Primatologist Martha Robbins

What attracted you to mountain gorillas?

When I was at university I became interested in the evolution of sociality. Primates are one of the key groups to study. It’s been almost 25 years now.

Are the mountain gorillas saved?

In general, the mountain gorilla numbers are going up, but they haven’t been saved since their numbers are under 1,000. Since gorillas mature so slowly, even killing a few individuals in a population can lead to a negative growth rate. We cannot be complacent about mountain gorilla conservation even if their populations appear to be increasing in size.

Who and what were killing gorillas?

First, going back to ‘60s and ‘70s, there was habitat destruction. Mountain gorillas live in two very small forest habitats and are surrounded by areas with some of the highest human population densities in the world for an agricultural area: 200 to 600 people farming per square kilometer. There’s just a continual demand for land. That was one of the biggest threats. Second, people use resources in the park, hunting duikers, a small deer-like animal, that ensnared gorilla hands and feet, and sometimes killing gorillas.

What were factors in the gorillas being saved?

People here don’t eat wild primates. That’s in contrast with western gorillas. Here, there has been no direct poaching for bush meats, which is a huge reason we have mountain gorillas. Tourism has also helped save the mountain gorillas. Habituated groups (that tourists pay to see) are growing at a higher rate than unhabituated ones, and that’s due to better protection.

Currently more than 40,000 people visit the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This brings in substantial financial revenue for the governments and generates a lot of additional business via hotels, restaurants, etc. These countries see the economic benefits, which provides incentives to conserve them as well as understanding the inherent value of the gorillas.

What is extreme conservation?

It refers to the place itself, but also to the extreme measures taken to protect gorillas. If a habituated gorilla gets caught in a snare, a veterinarian can take it off.

What else should be done to protect gorillas?

What matters when working with the local communities is to reduce the number of snares still laid for duiker. But it also requires improving the economic situation of the people living around the parks. Starting in the 1970s and 1980s here (in central Africa) and globally there was a strong realization that you couldn’t just put a fence around the area and tell the local people that you have to protect this park and that’s that. You have to provide benefits to the local people and work with them. You have to find ways to show their economic value.

How about energy access for people around the park?

In the communities around the parks, the amount of time spent gathering wood is incredible. Girls are out of school. For women it has huge repercussions. They are burning wood and charcoal. Around Bwindi, people generally do not go into the national park to collect firewood. I believe this is the situation around most of the Virunga Massif as well.

Why is that?

They respect the park and there are rangers. There’s the risk of getting caught. And there is pressure from neighbors not to do it.

Has much been talked about alternative fuels to wood?

Nothing around Bwindi. Around the Virungas they would use waste products like banana and saw dust and make charcoal briquettes. I’ve heard cases where it’s successful and others where it’s not. Mostly on the DRC side.

I have a very small conservation education program in the schools and we’re doing tree seedling nurseries, and giving them back to kids, but that’s a drop in the bucket.

I’ve seen some efforts for fuel-efficient stoves, but to change people’s behavior takes work. If you zoom in and say, “Use this stove, it is more efficient! It’s fair that if it doesn’t cook right, people stop using it.” Sometimes people use the stoves for a while and then go back to wood and charcoal. Other times, people do see the benefits of more efficient stoves and adopt them on a more permanent basis.

What about LPG, what we use for camping fuel, which they’ve used in India and the Dominican Republic?

This LPG thing would be great. People would not be able to afford it without substantial subsidies. Providing alternative fuels would be part of an overall conservation strategy for the region. But I think you hit the nail on the head about alternative fuels.

I saw a video of gorillas seeming to mourn a recently dead relative. One of them hit the body. What was going on there?

There are several reported cases when an adult gorilla dies. One was observed in Virungas in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The group may move off but may sit with the dead gorilla or may come back and sit after feeding.

I only know of one case where the body was hit — in other cases, the gorillas just come back and sit with the body for a bit before moving off.

Obviously we can’t get in their heads to tell if they’re mourning. We can’t know why the gorillas did that, but the incidents emphasize how strong their social bonds are.

It sounds like they have deep relationships.

The sociality is really part of what it means to be a gorilla or chimpanzee. In one group in Bwindi we’ve been studying for 16 years, some females have been in the group for 16 years — they have been 100 to 200 meters from each other for 16 years. I can’t imagine being that close to human being for that long!

Isn’t it heart breaking the way groups exclude the non-dominant males, making them live solitary lives?

For male gorillas it’s a really competitive world. If a silverback succeeds and becomes dominant — well, not all males can do that. You have winners and some who can’t win. Some of these males are solitary for years, and I think, for a social species, that is very tough. One of the Ugandan park wardens the other day referred to one as “the lonely silverback.”

How many silverbacks can there be in a single group?

For the two gorilla populations, about 40 percent have multi-male silverbacks. It isn't common for multi-male groups to have more than two or three, but a few groups have as many as five or six.

What’s the relationship like for males in a multi-male group?

The males in multi-male groups tolerate each other but they do not have strong, friendly relationships with each other. There is a lot of competition among adult males.

What are the research priorities for conservation?

There’s inward and outward. Inward means studying patterns of birth rates and mortality rates, since those translate into growth rates. We need to study crop raiding and why some gorilla groups in Bwindi come out of the park (where they are at higher risk of getting injured or killed). We need more studies understanding pathogens and disease. Understanding ecological patterns under auspices of climate change are important. And we need more studies on western gorillas.

And outward?

Outward we need to understand why people are poaching for duiker and what can be done to stop it. We need to tackle ways of dealing with the economic situation. We need to improve the socioeconomic situation for people living in the vicinity of the park so there is less pressure on the resources within the park.

Martha M. Robbins is a research scientist in the Department of Primatology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Her research focuses on the causes and consequences of sociality in one of our closest relatives, the gorilla.

Photo Credit Martha Robbins