Slow breeder ... a male mountain gorilla in the Virunga National Park in the eastern Congo. Photo: AP
The world's population of mountain gorillas has risen more than 10 per cent in two years, census figures show.
A survey carried out in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and released by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority has found numbers of the critically endangered species, Gorilla beringei beringei, have risen from an estimated 786 in 2010 to 880.
Threats to the mountain gorilla, including war, habitat destruction and disease, were once thought to be so severe the species could become extinct by the end of the 20th century, but numbers have increased significantly in the last 30 years.
Drew McVey, species program manager at WWF-UK, which supported the census as part of the International Gorilla Conservation Program, says the increase is due to conservation efforts that successfully engaged the local community.
''Mountain gorillas have only survived because of conservation,'' McVey says. ''Protected areas are better managed and resourced than they have ever been … We don't just work with the animals in the national parks, but also with the people.''
McVey says conservation now balanced species survival against the needs of an incredibly poor area with high population pressures. For example, conservationists tackle the loss of gorilla habitat due to the illegal collection of firewood by providing the community with access to alternative energy sources.
Mountain gorillas, a subspecies of the eastern lowland gorilla, live in mountain forests in only two places, Bwindi in south-west Uganda and the Virunga Massif, which borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.
The census report shows there are more than 400 mountain gorillas in Bwindi, living in 36 distinct social groups, with 16 solitary males. Ten of these groups are accustomed to human presence for either tourism or research. A 2010 survey counted 480 individuals in Virunga Massif.
''Gorillas are slow breeders,'' McVey says. ''And we're quite impressed with how much the population has increased.''
He said this the rise does not mean the species has been saved. ''Mountain gorillas are only found in protected areas, and outside these areas there are more than 600 people per square kilometre, so there is immense pressure to secure their habitat and pay their way. We haven't got everything right yet. It's vital we continue to keep working and build on this success.''
The greatest threats are entanglement in snares, disease transfer from humans and habitat loss for farming.
''Gorillas have almost the same DNA as us, and humans can transmit anything from a common cold to ebola,'' McEvoy says. ''Gorilla populations are incredibly fragile and sensitive to environmental change. There are only two populations, so disease could easily wipe out an entire population.''
The prospect of oil exploration in Democratic Republic of the Congo's Virunga National Park has also become a cause for concern.
''More people in Virunga would likely lead to an increase in deforestation, illegal hunting and more snares in the forest,'' says WWF's African great ape program manager, David Greer. ''At least seven Virunga mountain gorillas have been caught in snares this year and two did not survive. The gorilla population remains fragile and could easily slip into decline if conservation management was to be disregarded in the pursuit of oil money by elites.''
The number of mountain gorillas declined dramatically in the 1960s, stabilised during the 1970s and began to rise in the 1980s. Political instability and war prevented a complete census until 1989, when it was revealed there were 620 individuals.
The war in Rwanda in the early 1990s and years of unrest in the DRC led to poaching and destruction of gorilla habitat and made survey and conservation work dangerous. Since 1996, 140 Virunga rangers have been killed on duty, including one in May.
Many mountain gorillas have become accustomed to human presence and are a tourist drawcard. In 2009, the Virunga park - home to the largest mountain gorilla population - had 550 visitors. This year visitors are projected to reach 6000.
''The amount of revenue and jobs that gorillas generate is so important for these areas that are so desperately poor,'' McVey said. ''People really see gorillas as important for the national and local economies, and a portion of this goes back to conservation efforts and the local community.''
But park authorities have been forced to suspend tourism again after fighting, and last month a Congolese rebel group accused of many atrocities was found to be using the proceeds of gorilla treks to fund its insurgency.
Guardian News & Media