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Africa's mountain gorillas on the rebound

Conservation pays off as the endangered gorilla appears to be making a comeback.

African mountain gorillas
A juvenile gorilla leans on the shoulder of an adult male on the slopes of Mount Mikeno in the Virunga National Park on Nov. 28, 2008. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

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NAIROBI, Kenya — Among the thick forests clinging to the sides of the steep volcanoes that straddle the borders between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda live some of the world’s only wild mountain gorillas.

The gorillas are a critically endangered species surrounded by some of the earth’s most populated and dangerous countries. Yet a recently completed census shows that their numbers have risen by more than 25 percent.

Researchers carried out a census of the great apes across three adjoining national parks earlier this year. Their findings, published in December, reveal that the number of gorillas has increased to 480, up from 380 when the last count was done seven years ago.

Conservationists welcomed the dramatic increase.

“The mountain gorilla population has made an absolutely remarkable recovery,” said Allard Blom, director of the Congo Basin region at the World Wildlife Fund, one of the organizations that helped fund the research.

Despite the increase there are only 786 mountain gorillas in the world. An additional 302 gorillas are known to live in Uganda’s Bwindi National Park, according to a 2006 census there, and there are four orphaned apes living in a Congolese sanctuary.

“We cannot let down our guard on the conservation of these incredible animals,” said Eugene Rutagarama, director of the International Gorilla Conservation Program. “While mountain gorillas are physically strong, they are also incredibly vulnerable.”

Mountain gorillas were only discovered in 1902 but hunting, poaching and destruction of their habitat by humans meant that in the same century they were discovered they faced possible extinction. By the 1980s there were only 250 mountain gorillas left. Numbers have gradually increased but mountain gorillas remain a critically endangered species.

These days, the area where most of the gorillas live, known as the Virunga Massif, has become crowded with tourists. Both Rwanda and Uganda, which have been at peace for many years already, welcome tens of thousands of gorilla-seeking tourists every year. The visitors often spend hundreds of dollars for a few minutes of face time with the creatures in their natural habitat.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/africa/101213/uganda-mountain-gorilla-endangered-species-census