Editor’s note: This commentary article was written by Dr. Tara Stoinski, president, CEO and chief scientist at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Atlanta.
In September more than half a century ago, the legendary primatologist Dian Fossey pitched tents on a mountain slope in Rwanda to study the elusive mountain gorillas. These are the Gorillas in the Mist, and they live in the dense cloud forests of East Africa’s Virunga mountain range.
Fossey lost her life trying to save mountain gorillas, but her work and passion inspired an enduring movement. The Atlanta-based Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is the world’s longest running and largest gorilla conservation organization, and it’s where I’ve spent most of my career.
In our organization’s 52-year history, we have seen mountain gorillas take a remarkable turn. In the Virungas, where we do much of our work, the population has grown from a low of about 250 in Fossey’s lifetime to about 600 today. In fact, they are the only great ape species whose numbers are increasing. There’s no question mountain gorillas are a conservation success story – and one deeply rooted in Atlanta.
Since 1995, the Fossey Fund has managed its scientific research and conservation programs from a headquarters nestled within Zoo Atlanta. Our strong ties go back almost 30 years, when the zoo’s then-CEO stepped up to serve as chair of our board. The zoo and the city have been critical partners in our work ever since.
Conservation is more important than ever. Nature overall is not doing well. Recently, the United Nations reported that 1 million plant and animal species are in danger of extinction. It released a landmark biodiversity study that found that, well, we’re to blame. The ways we use land, sea and air are precipitating nature’s decline.
Even with their recent success as a species, mountain gorillas still face threats because of their tiny population and from human conflict and poverty, pressures on their extremely limited habitat, and disease. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Grauer’s gorillas – cousins to the mountain gorilla – have suffered a staggering loss of 80 percent of their population in the last 20 years. We cannot let up.
People are captivated by gorillas because they are so human-like. We see ourselves in their eyes, their hands, and the way they care for their babies and socialize in groups. Their human qualities make them ideal messengers for what it takes to save a species.
It takes a sustained, on-the-ground presence and collaboration between host governments, NGOs and the private sector. It takes investment in local communities to train next-generation conservationists and to provide education and economic opportunities. And it takes the courage of hundreds of trackers on the ground, every single day, performing always grueling, sometimes dangerous and even deadly work.
We’re applying our proven conservation model – relentless vigilance, cutting-edge science and community engagement – to our work in Congo with Grauer’s. Unlike mountain gorillas, they live outside of protected areas, so we’re working with local families to help us protect them and their habitats. Our field staff all come from those communities, and we provide education, resources and training. Success is possible when people and wildlife can thrive together.
We lead busy lives in Atlanta, and the struggles of gorillas are thousands of miles away. But their fight for survival is really our own. Their habitat is the second-largest forest we have left, a “carbon sink” and a natural defense against climate change.
Here in Atlanta, we can help. We can reduce single-use plastics, buy sustainably farmed and harvested food, and lower our carbon footprint. We can recycle our cell phones to reduce demand for minerals mined in gorilla habitats. We can support companies doing business responsibly and conservation groups doing the ground-level work.
Extinction is not reversible, but mountain gorillas show us, it is preventable. There’s no time to waste.
Learn more at www.gorillafund.org.