Endangered mountain gorillas making a comeback

Story highlights

  • Mountain gorillas are a critically endangered species
  • In the early 1970s, there were only 240 gorillas left in Rwanda
  • A 2010 census showed the number of gorillas had doubled

(CNN)In 1967, American primatologist Dian Fossey arrived by herself at Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park.

She set up camp between two of the park's volcanoes, planning to study the area's critically endangered mountain gorillas. But what she found was a species on the brink. A census conducted shortly after found that just 240 gorillas were left.
In the nearly 50 years since, what was a dire situation has become a rare conservation success story. Today, despite years of regional instability and daily threats, the population of gorillas in the park has doubled.
Fossey was killed in Rwanda nearly 30 years ago, but the work she started continues through the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, and the nonprofit owes much of its success to its namesake.
"At that time, the image of them was 'King Kong' -- ferocious, strong, scary beast," said Tara Stoinski, the Fossey Fund's president and CEO. "She really pioneered the study of gorillas and habituating them, getting them used to human presence, so you and I can sit as far away as that next office and observe the details of their life."
The gorillas' comeback has not been easy, mostly due to habitat loss.
"They are literally stuck on top of these volcanoes surrounded by a sea of people," Stoinski said. " It's one of the highest human population densities in Africa, so there's a lot of pressure on the forest and the area that they live."
According to Stoinski, human diseases are a major threat, as is the hunting of other wildlife in the forest. Sometimes snares are set to catch antelopes and other food sources, and gorillas can get caught.
To protect the gorillas, the organization uses a holistic approach. The Fossey Fund works with Rwanda's park rangers to provide protection, 365 days a year. The group also continues the research that Fossey started, gathering data every day to better understand the species. And then there are initiatives aimed at the local human population -- providing clean water access and bolstering the scienti