Gorilla Subspecies: Eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri)

Known Range: Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

IUCN Red List classification: Critically Endangered 

HEIGHT: 4 to 5 ½ feet tall when standing on two feet

WEIGHT: up to 440 pounds


The pressure on apes and their habitats is intensifying in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) due to insecurity, poaching, climate change-induced habitat loss, and encroachment by farmers.

Conservationists emphasize that concerted efforts in the DRC are crucial for the survival of these great ape species.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) hosts several ape species, including the Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), primarily found in the eastern DRC, notably in Kahuzi-Biega National Park and surrounding areas, with an estimated population ranging from 3,800 to 4,500 individuals.

Additionally, the Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) inhabits the eastern DRC, particularly in the Virunga Mountains, shared with Rwanda and Uganda, and in the adjacent Virunga National Park. The estimated population of Mountain Gorillas in this region is around 400 individuals.

Another ape species in the DRC is the Bonobo (Pan paniscus), endemic to the country and exclusively found in its dense forests, primarily in the central and western regions. An estimated population of 15,000 to 20,000 individuals resides in this area.

As well, the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) can be found in various parts of the DRC, including the eastern forests and the central basin — these range from 20,000 to 35,000 individuals.

The most endangered great ape species are located in the unstable eastern region of the country. In particular, Sarambwe Reserve within Virunga National Park has become a stronghold for the M23 rebellion, leading to clashes with the DRC armed forces. Further north, lowland gorillas in the Tayna reserves are at risk as armed groups like the “Mai Mai” militiamen hunt them for meat.

Several militia groups have been active in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the years, each exerting varying degrees of influence over nearby natural resources. Notable among them are the M23 group, Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Mai-Mai Militias, National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), and Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FLR), among others. 

For example, amid the insecurity in the Mikeno area, authorities at Virunga National Park have ceded control over the mountain gorillas in the Sarambwe reserve.

Emmanuel De Merode, the provincial director of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation, laments that this stems from the presence of M23 rebels in the area. 

“We currently lack a presence in Mikeno, where mountain gorillas reside, and that concerns us greatly,” laments Emmanuel, further acknowledging, “It’s an undeniably challenging circumstance around Goma.”

Eastern lowland gorilla. Photo by Pixabay

Coexisting with adversaries

In 1996, a small population of 18 gorillas was discovered at Mount Kyavirimu near Virunga National Park. The Congolese Institute for Conservation of Nature (ICCN) estimated that this small subpopulation would soon face extinction if no conservation action were taken.

These gorillas are currently classified as eastern lowland gorillas, also known as Grauer’s gorilla, but exhibit morphological differences from others.

The Eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), also known as Grauer’s gorilla, is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. This subspecies of gorilla is found in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and its population has been significantly reduced due to habitat loss, poaching, and civil unrest in the region.

In its assessment, IUCN Red List says Grauer’s Gorillas are getting fewer every year, about 5% less stressing that if this keeps happening, almost all of them, 97%, could disappear by 2054, which is just three generations away.

The rapidly growing human population has also become a significant threat to protected areas in the DRC, particularly in North Kivu. Increasing population density is leading to competition for land resources.

Agricultural professor Paul Vikanza, the dean of the faculty of agronomic sciences at the Catholic University of Graben in Butembo, North Kivu, specializing in the management of natural resources at the interface between environment and population development, uses the term “demographic powder keg” to describe this region of the Lubero territory for its ever-increasing population. 

Cambridge Dictionary defines a Powder keg as a “situation or a place that could easily become extremely dangerous.” 

Lubero is the most populous territory in the DRC, with an estimated 1.7 million 

inhabitants. Territories in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are administrative divisions of provinces. There are 25 provinces in DR Congo, divided into 145 territories. 

In rural towns such as Masereka in North Kivu, where populations exceed 50 thousand, agronomist Nzilamba Mukwahabiri Tridon highlights a troubling trend: “Today, even those with extensive fields struggle to produce on just two plots.”

Kaswera Waherendi, a League of Peasant Organizations in Congo (LOFEPAKO) member, adds, “They subdivide these two plots to grow cabbage here, onions there, or potatoes elsewhere, resulting in insufficient production.”

Farmers in this area have reported shifts in agricultural productivity due to climate change. They say changes in temperature, rainfall patterns, and the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events have affected the productivity of their gardens, making their traditional farming practices less viable. 

As a result, some farmers have been forced to seek out new land for cultivation, including areas within the reserve, to expand their farming activities and meet their food and economic needs.

Kaswera Waherendi, a farmer in Lofepaco, says, “We feel compelled to take such risks. We have no alternative.”

The threat is real in such a region stripped bare by agricultural practices and vulnerable to erosion, significantly exacerbated by rudimentary cultivation techniques. 

Hand of a Gorilla on a Metal Fence. Photo by David Seyy

Breaking legal restrictions

Bienvenu Bwende, the communications officer for Virunga National Park, which also oversees Kyavirimu Reserve, emphasized, “Virunga is a sanctuary, a protected area. Any illegal activity within the park constitutes an environmental crime. Those who breach its boundaries must understand that there are consequences.”

However, enforcing land-use regulations becomes even more challenging in these areas where wars, conflict, and economic challenges prevail. 

Farmers indeed feel emboldened to encroach on reserves because the authorities are preoccupied with other pressing issues or lack the capacity to enforce regulations effectively. In some areas in this region, the risk of encroachment is outweighed by the immediate need for livelihoods or sustenance.

Also, insecurity has disrupted governance structures, especially in the rebel-held territories, weakening institutions and undermining the rule of law, making it easier for individuals to engage in illegal activities such as encroachment without facing significant consequences.

Law enforcement agencies are finding it impossible to effectively patrol protected areas, enforce anti-poaching laws, or respond to wildlife crime incidents in insecure regions.

This lack of enforcement creates a sense of impunity among poachers, making it easier for them to operate undetected.

But some armed groups are exploiting natural resources in the country, including wildlife, as a source of funding or sustenance. There have been incidences where poaching has been used to provide food and income for militias in DR Congo

Habamenshi Peter Muganda (not real name), a former member of one of the militia groups in the country, says, “they exploited any available natural resource in the area to survive.”

Conservation efforts for the great ape species in this central African country are further hindered by residents engaging in illegal logging for charcoal production. In contrast, others encroach upon protected areas to expand their farmlands. 

Relatedly, Emmanuel De Merode, the provincial director of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation, cites the challenge of “increasing deforestation trend in the south,” which is compounded by the presence of internally displaced persons (IDP) in the area.  

Eastern lowland gorilla sitting. Photo by Grassy Field

Conservation in the face of adversity

A shining example of successful great ape conservation efforts is the Tayna Reserve, which is conserving Grauer’s gorilla species. 

Grauer’s gorillas, also known as eastern lowland gorillas, are a subspecies of the eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei). They are found primarily in the east part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), particularly in the region’s lowland forests. 

Located in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), specifically in the province of North Kivu, Tayna Reserve lies within the larger Itombwe Massif landscape, known for its high biodiversity and unique ecosystems.

This Reserve has enacted protective measures to safeguard and defend Grauer’s gorillas against challenges.

Despite being privately managed and having limited resources, an agreement was established with the Congolese Nature Institute (ICCN) authorities to relocate some of its species to the Kyavirimu reserve. Here, park rangers who are better equipped and trained work to safeguard gorillas from poachers and militia threats.

Tayna Gorilla Reserve, spanning 700 km², is a community conservation reserve established in April 1998 to protect a significant population of Grauer’s Gorillas and support local communities. Initial studies indicate that 225 and 360 eastern lowland gorillas inhabit the reserve.

However, this population suffered significant losses due to the presence of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the largest illegal foreign armed group operating in the DR Congo.

Additionally, artisanal mining poses a threat to the reserve’s integrity. In 2021, the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) organization confirmed the existence of surviving Grauer Gorillas in this reserve, although specific population numbers were not disclosed. These are the species slated for transfer to Kyavirimu.

Eastern lowland gorilla. Photo by David Atkins

Conservation efforts should extend beyond protected areas.

Experts insist that ape conservation efforts should extend beyond the boundaries of their habitats. 

While these areas are vital for preserving the Apes and other biodiversity and ecosystems, adopting conservation strategies encompassing broader landscapes and actively engaging local communities is essential. 

As pointed out by Fataki Baloti, the focal point for environmental issues within Butembo’s civil society, “there is a necessity of raising public awareness about the importance of community engagement in safeguarding great apes and the benefits they get in return.” 

Likewise, Professor Vikanza suggests involving communities in conservation efforts and addressing the root causes of environmental degradation could help communities achieve more sustainable and holistic conservation outcomes.

“The key is to understand that the problem is there and that it cannot be solved by force. It has been there for almost a century. And there has been no winner. We need to keep the debate going,” says Professor Vikanza.

Eastern lowland gorilla. Photo by world hopper

The authorities of Virunga National Park have already recognized the importance of addressing this issue. They have taken the initial step by constructing hydroelectric power plants, which provide stable electricity to the city of Goma and some villages and help protect the park by reducing human pressure on it.

The main objective is to decrease reliance on charcoal, mainly as it represents a significant source of income. The charcoal production business is worth more than $1 million monthly in the Kivu. Up to 90% of this charcoal comes from the Virunga National Park. Tackling this issue requires providing the population with alternative energy sources such as hydropower or gas.

Virunga Energies aims to extend hydroelectric power to nine North Kivu towns, home to an estimated 3.8 million people. However, progress has been limited, with only 25,290 households and 1,332 businesses currently connected to the grid.

In the Rwenzori region, the park aids farmers by enhancing the value of their coffee and cocoa production at the Mutwanga Agro-Industrial Park, narrates Welcome Bwende, communications officer for Virunga National Park. 

This story was produced with support from Apes Reporting Project (ARP). ARP is a project of Water Journalists Africa, which also runs InfoNile, a geojournalism project.

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