Gorillas Face Many Dangers. But They Can Count on Tara Stoinski

Poaching, limited habitat, and civil unrest don’t stop the CEO of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, who leads the group’s efforts in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Some successes present new challenges. Take Rwanda’s mountain gorillas, famously championed by the primatologist and conservationist Dian Fossey. The apes are no longer poached the way they were when Fossey studied them, from the 1960s through the 1980s. Their habitat, in Volcanoes National Park, is protected by the Rwandan government. And while recovery is slow, the gorillas are increasing in number—the only great ape to do so—from a record low of 250 in the region in Fossey’s time to more than 600 today.

“Which is wonderful,” said Tara Stoinski, A91, president/CEO and chief scientific officer of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. “But their habitat isn’t increasing.” And therein lies the problem.

Today the gorillas of the Virunga Mountains are confined to 450 square kilometers of park land, an area about one-tenth the size of Rhode Island. The animals’ modest numbers, combined with limited habitat size and the surrounding high-density human population, leave them vulnerable.

“It takes time, it takes money, it takes...being there during genocide, during pandemics, during civil unrest. But the success of mountain gorilla conservation, despite all those challenges, shows we can make a difference.”

Tara Stoinski, president/CEO and chief scientific officer of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund

“If you have one natural disaster that comes through—a forest fire, for example—or one pandemic that gets into the population, when you’re starting out with so few individuals in such a small space, it means they’re more susceptible,” Stoinski said. “In a larger habitat or with more individuals, that kind of change could have a smaller effect on the survival of the species.”

While the Rwandan government is looking at expanding the park by buying back land sold off decades ago for agriculture, Stoinski said, that’s not a definite or quick fix.

Another Gorilla, Another Plan

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, conservation involves a whole different set of challenges. The Fossey Fund expanded there 20 years ago to address the dwindling population of another subspecies of gorilla, known as Grauer’s gorillas.

Unlike mountain gorillas, all of whom live within a national park, most of Congo’s Grauer’s gorillas live on lands with no formal protection. Estimates suggest that about 60% of the Grauer’s gorilla population has been lost in the last 25 years, “a direct result of poaching, driven by extreme poverty, by conflict, by conflict minerals,” Stoinski said. Conflict minerals are mined extracts such as gold and cobalt (used for electric car batteries) that are sometimes sold to fund fighting. “We still have beautiful habitat, but the animals—and not just gorillas, but chimps and elephants [too]—have been impacted by decades of civil unrest.”

To increase ape stability, the Fossey Fund looks for ways to support human stability. Over the last 10 years, the organization has partnered with local groups to create Nkuba Conservation Area, a community-protected forest, and to seek formal recognition for it from the Congolese government. At 2,400 square kilometers, Nkuba is now five times the size of the mountain gorillas’ Virunga habitat.

Getting the land recognized is only one piece of the puzzle, said Stoinski. Also key is “addressing why people are so dependent on the forest in the first place.” That means creating programs that advance food security and economic health—from the cultivation of protein-rich, fast-growing mushrooms to fish farming to beekeeping to bread baking. In addition, the Fossey Fund has signed a 25-year agreement with the community to manage Nkuba as a conservation area.

To lead these efforts, Stoinski draws on her background in science, including a master’s degree in zoology from Oxford, a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Georgia Tech, and the prerequisites for veterinary school she completed at Tufts, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in history.

Yet she stresses that the Fossey Fund, a donation-dependent nonprofit, doesn’t take a top-down approach. “We have more than 300 staff in Africa, and all but four of them are Rwandan or Congolese. They’re very much working with communities to ask, ‘What will be beneficial for you?’”

In It for the Long Haul

Developing trust with local communities takes time. “We’re not in and out,” said Stoinski, who has led the Fossey Fund for eight years following more than a dozen as a research scientist with the organization. The fund, at 55 years old, is the world’s longest-running gorilla research and conservation program.

The long-term commitment benefits another stakeholder: planet Earth.

Gorillas, like people, can survive even when their ecosystem changes, Stoinski said. “They have a broad, flexible diet. They don’t depend on one place to have their babies or to mate.” So, to understand how gorillas and their habitats are weathering climate change, scientists must examine other elements in the ape environment: indicator species like wetland plants, amphibians, and birds.

“The gorillas we study don’t ever go to the wetlands, so if you were just studying gorillas, you wouldn’t learn anything about the health of the wetlands,” Stoinski said. Amphibians, however, do live in wetlands, “and something eats those amphibians,” she said. “It’s the whole idea of a complex web of life. If something’s changing at the bottom, how is it affecting the health of the ecosystem as a whole?”

Nkuba could be an especially telling harbinger. “The Congo basin is the second biggest tropical rainforest left on the planet and one of our best natural defenses against climate change,” Stoinski said. Protecting it is critical, not just for the animals and the people who live there, but for the entire planet.

“It takes time, it takes money, it takes effort. It takes being there during genocide, during pandemics, during civil unrest,” Stoinski said. “But the success of mountain gorilla conservation, despite all those challenges, shows we can make a difference.”

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