The Virungas, home of the world’s largest population of Mountain gorillas in the wild, and also an area that is surrounded by a high human population density, is facing its worst threat: Nature’s fury.
Recent effects of global warming are worrying conservationists, concerned by the frequency of mudslides as recently seen in Uganda’s Kisoro district, one of the six natural habitats of the Silver Backs in the eight Virunga volcanoes region.
In January, Mount Karisimbi, one of the Virunga volcanoes in Kisoro and which is shared by Rwanda and Uganda suffered catastrophic mudslides that destroyed homes, farmlands and forests, killing at least nine people on the Ugandan side, and forcing people to move to safety. Both communities and wildlife now face the threat of hunger.
Kisoro lies between the protected areas of Echuya Forest Reserve, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. This is the home to Uganda’s gorilla population and the centre of gorilla tourism, an important source of income for communities here and a revenue stream for the government.
“If the mudslides continue, a lot of the gorillas’ forage food, such as bamboo forests, will be swept away, presenting the threat of hunger for the animals. We need to find a quick fix for this threat before it’s too late,” said Greg Bakunzi, founder of Red Rocks Initiatives for Sustainable Development, a Rwanda-based wildlife conservation organisation.
Rwanda is world famous for its gorilla families and their conservation in the wild, and a threat to a shared habitat is a threat to all.
Mountain gorillas account for a big percentage of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s tourism revenues. Rwanda charges $1,500 per person, Uganda $700 and the DR Congo $400, for a one hour gorilla tracking session in the wild.
Any threat to gorillas is therefore taken seriously. Humans who are facing food insecurity can get aid or move, but not gorillas, and because of rising temperatures, there has been an overall decline in plant biomass in the Virungas in the past decade, especially gallium, which is the food mostly preferred by mountain gorillas, according to Dr Felix Kinani, a Kigali-based veterinary doctor who previously worked with Gorilla Doctors, a non-profit that works in gorilla conservation.
“The rising temperatures have also led to increased dust in the forests, which puts the gorillas at the risk of contracting respiratory diseases such as coughs. Gorillas need cooler places to survive because of the lower risk of contracting diseases,” Dr Kinani said.
“Mountain gorillas are not known to survive anywhere else in the world other than in their natural habitat in the Virunga Mountains and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park,” Dr Kinani says.
According to Kinani, Mountain gorillas cannot even be translocated to another national park because they have high stress levels, and moving them from their natural habitat ends up in their death.
And now that the endangered primates are increasing in numbers, Kinani says that the only way to protect them is by protecting their habitat, which is the natural forests and where possible, these protected areas should be expanded.
On my recent visit to Kisoro, I met Moses Tibanyendera, 40, a resident of Koranya village on the foothills of Mount Karisimbi, and one of the few who have not moved. He was desperately trying to get his life back to normal.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my whole life,” this is all what he could say of the mudslides.
Standing in front of the ruins of his rental house — with the picturesque Mount Karisimbi serenely in the background — he said; “The floods started at 8pm and washed away about 20 homes and several farms. I lost about 70 per cent of my house and five of my neighbours to the mudslides.”
Koranya is just one of the many villages around the Virunga volcanoes, and Tibanyendera’s situation shows the unpredictability of nature and the challenges it poses for both human and wildlife.
According to Achilles Byaruhanga, the executive director of Nature Uganda, at least 400 people live on a kilometre square of land in Kisoro district.
He said that the recent mudslides are as a result of the effects of population pressure, causing land degradation around the Virunga volcanoes.
“The mudslides may not directly affect the gorillas deep in the forests. However, when you look at it broadly, the causes of the mudslides, such as degradation of the land, will continue to drive climate change-induced extreme weather patterns such as prolonged droughts and precipitation, which in the end affects both humans and wildlife.”
The Covid-19 pandemic killed global tourism and Kisoro, which relies on gorilla tourism as the main source of income for local communities, was not spared.
“Desperate people who had been benefiting from gorilla tourism were forced to encroach on protected areas in order to survive, searching for wild animals to eat, setting up beehives in the forests and cutting down bamboo for sale,” said Bakunzi.
A combination of Covid-19 and climate change also “led to a reduction in people’s food production due to dwindling water catchment areas, leaving people with no choice but the forest as a source of food and water,” Byaruhanga said.
The Virungas is home to about 1,000 mountain gorillas as of 2018 numbers following great conservation efforts to save them from extinction.
An estimated 50 percent of them are found in the Virunga massif. The same year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature changed its Red List status of mountain gorillas from “critically endangered” to “endangered.”