From: Reuters
Published February 20, 2008 06:05 AM

Gorilla project unites Uganda, Rwanda and Congo

By Francis Kwera

KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda, Rwanda and Congo launched a joint effort on Wednesday to protect endangered mountain gorillas that roam the three nations' jungle borders.

Fewer than 720 of the primates -- famous for the shimmering silver hair on the backs of males -- are believed to exist in the wild, spread across the remote Virunga hills where Democratic Republic of Congo meets Uganda and Rwanda.

They are a lucrative source of income from tourists, many of whom are high-end visitors paying $500 a day for tracking permits.

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"For the first time, the three countries have decided to protect the great apes which are threatened with extinction and insecurity in the region," Moses Mapesa, the head of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), told a news conference in Kampala.

His Rwandan counterpart, Rosette Rugamba, said gorilla numbers were at risk from poaching, encroachment by humans and insecurity. Eastern Congo is a hotbed of militia groups, some of which have been accused of hunting mountain gorillas.

"The 10-year trans-boundary strategic plan will identify groups and communities which affect the life in the Virunga area and directly address encroachment and poaching," she said.

The first four years of the plan, costing 4.1 million euro ($6.03 million), is being funded by the Dutch government.

According to the UWA, the number of gorillas in southwest Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a stand-alone enclave for the primates, is 340 -- making it the single largest population.

Another 250 are thought to roam on the Rwandan side of the border. A smaller number are in Congo, where wildlife officials say at least 10 were killed last year.

Gorilla numbers across the region fell to a low of around 370 in the 1980s. But renewed conservation efforts, coupled with the primates' growing value as tourist attractions, has seen numbers recover. Bwindi has seen 12 percent population growth over the last decade due to better protection from poachers.

(Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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