Presence of other rebel groups in region, in combination with other threats against great apes, still pose potential harm to the endangered species.
After more than a year and a half in conflict against the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the M23 rebel group has announced it will disband and disarm, paving the way for peace in eastern Congo. The recent events are a positive sign not only for people, but also for the endangered mountain gorilla, whose habitat has inadvertently served as home base and occasional battlefield for the rebel group.
"The disbanding of the M23 rebel group will mean one less threat to the mountain gorilla, and that is a very positive thing," remarked Jef Dupain, director of the Great Apes Program for the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). "We must remain vigilant, however, as a few dozen rebel groups are still thought to operate in this area. The potential for conflict, in addition to the other threats that great apes face, means that ensuring stabilization of the mountain gorilla population must remain a priority for conservation groups and the region's governments."
Only about 880 mountain gorillas exist in the world, and all live in Africa's Virunga mountain range--where DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda meet--and Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This part of Africa is particularly rich in natural resources, and the potential for exploitation of these resources has regularly played a role in area conflicts. Natural resource extraction poses a significant threat for Africa's great apes, as well, whose forested habitats are being degraded and diminished over time.
"Today's great apes are under threat not only from habitat destruction and fragmentation, but also poaching, the risk of disease transfer from humans, and the pet trade," Dupain explained. "Even without conflict and war, Africa's apes are struggling for survival."
Africa is home to four of the world's five great apes. All four--which include the eastern gorilla, of which the mountain gorilla is a subspecies, western gorilla, bonobo, and common chimpanzee--are either endangered or critically endangered. In an effort to provide greater protections to great apes and their habitats across Central and West Africa, AWF recently launched the African Apes Initiative. The initiative leverages the organization's three decades of experience in mountain gorilla and bonobo conservation to build capacity among protected area authorities, strengthen monitoring of protected areas, provide much-needed equipment for rangers, and increase community engagement in conservation.