Good news for environmental conservationists: a new survey shows that the number of critically endangered African mountain gorillas has now risen over 1,000. They have been designated a critically endangered species since 1996. Now, they are the world’s only great apes to be growing in number.

The mountain gorillas are found only in Virunga Massif, a chain of extinct volcanoes that covers parts of Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo, as well as in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. However, the Virunga Massif lies in an area plagued by political instability and violence. According to the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has claimed over four million human lives over the past, has led to a loss of resources and decline of wildlife tourism, which have directly impacted the welfare of the mountain gorilla population in Virunga National Park.

In the past, mountain gorillas, though popular with tourists, dwindled in number due to poaching, illness, and habitat loss. According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), these gorillas have endured years of war, hunting, and human encroachment since the discovery of their species in 1902. As humans have pushed further up into the gorillas’ territory for the purposes of commercial logging, subsistence farming, or for building roads, the gorillas have been forced to move up into higher elevations and consequently endure colder and harsher weather conditions.

Overall, gorillas in Africa face great risk of extinction due to the prevalence of the commercial trade in bushmeat throughout western and central Africa, particularly in urban areas. Although they only represent a small proportion of animals whose meat are sold through the trade, their large size and heavy weight render them easy and desirable targets for hunting. They also may be sought out as pets or for their body parts, which may be used in traditional medicine or as lucky charms. Finally, outbreaks of infectious diseases such as Ebola have caused large-scale deaths among ape populations.

Thankfully, due to efforts by conservationists such as mountain rangers, African mountain gorillas seem to be faring quite well. Rangers such as those trained by the AWF through the International Gorilla Conservation Programme monitor habituated mountain gorilla families on a daily basis in order to help prevent poaching and the spread of the human disease. Rangers also monitor the health and behavior of each family member and record changes in number due to birth, death, or transfer to another group.

Conservationists can use a number of strategies to encourage the growth of the African mountain gorilla population as well as that of other critically endangered species under similar circumstances. Conservation NGOs such as the AWF should continue to work with local partners and governments to help expand key habitats. They should also work with local communities – for instance, the AWF has built tourism lodges benefitting mountain gorillas in an effort to encourage eco-tourism and raise money for conservation efforts.

Eco-tourism, or tourism directed toward threatened wildlife in order to increase observation and aid conservation efforts, appears to be an effective way of garnering public awareness and raising funds to protect endangered species. In Namibia, for instance, a nationwide conservation movement encouraging sustainable tourism has allowed for wildlife to recover and eventually flourish due to the decline in poaching. Namibia’s Community Game Guards track threatened species and ensure that illegal poaching does not take place.

In Africa, nations such as Botswana and Namibia serve as ecotourism hotspots. They host a variety of conservation safaris and family experiences that house visitors in conservation-based lodges. In Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo, too, eco-tourism has begun to take off and have noticeable impacts on the well-being of endangered mountain gorillas.

Featured Image via Wikimedia