In what researchers are calling a rare conservation success story, mountain gorillas are slowly and steadily rebounding. The so-called gentle giants have just been re-classified from "critically endangered" — the highest level of threat — to "endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).
There are now just more than 1,000 mountain gorillas in the wild. But in 1978, during the height of primatologist Dian Fossey's work with her beloved great apes in Rwanda, the mountain gorilla population headed toward a low point of only 240 animals. Fossey feared the species would be extinct before the year 2000.
Instead, their numbers have increased due to long-term, well-funded international protection efforts.
"It is the result of decades of on-the-ground protection by hundreds of dedicated individuals, many of whom have lost their lives to protect the gorillas, and a testament to the conservation efforts of the governments of Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo where these gorillas live," says Dr. Tara Stoinski, president and CEO/chief scientist of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
Stoinski, who was on the IUCN primate team that recommended the status change, is cautiously optimistic about the news.
"It's a fragile success," she tells MNN. "The fact that they're moving in this direction is very positive, but there are still only 1,000 animals left, which means their status could change very quickly."
Ongoing threats include limited habitat, disease, climate change and human pressure. "They remain a conservation-dependent species and must be continually protected," says Stoinski. "Any one of these threats could change their status very quickly."
An international effort
Mountain gorillas have experienced some of the highest protections of any animal, Stoinski says, including support from government leadership in the countries where their habitats are.
"We are proud to be part of this international effort to save the world's remaining mountain gorillas," says Felix Ndagijimana, director of the Fossey Fund’s Rwanda Programs and Karisoke Research Center. "It is a great example of collaboration between governments, conservation organizations like the Fossey Fund, and local communities, and we remain committed to supporting the efforts of the Rwandan government to preserve its biological heritage."
The three governments have increased enforcement of national park boundaries and stepped up tourism, which helps pay for rangers, according to the Associated Press. Increased veterinary training and presence also helps care for the mountain gorilla population.
"Whilst it is fantastic news that Mountain Gorillas are increasing in number, this subspecies is still Endangered and therefore conservation action must continue," says Dr. Liz Williamson of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group in a statement. "Coordinated efforts through a regional action plan and fully implementing IUCN Best Practice guidelines for great ape tourism and disease prevention, which recommend limiting numbers of tourists and preventing any close contact with humans, are critical to ensuring a future for the Mountain Gorilla."