24 September 2021

COVID-19 and climate change exacerbate human-wildlife conflict in the last refuge of the mountain gorilla 

The Greater Virunga landscape, a mountainous area straddling the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, comprises seven national parks, the last refuge of mountain gorillas in the world.  

In June 2020, Rafiki, a 25-year-old silverback leading the Nkuringo gorilla troop in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, was killed by poachers who said they were hunting for bushmeat. This was the first such incident in close to 10 years.  

An increase in human-wildlife conflict, poaching, snare hunting and other illegal activities has been observed in the vicinity of most mountain gorilla parks in the last few months, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the loss of jobs and tourism income. 

Mountain gorillas are rarely a direct target of bushmeat hunting. Local communities don’t include primates in their diet, and trophy hunting is also not considered to be a challenge in the Greater Virunga landscape. A much larger challenge relates to indiscriminate poaching: the accidental snaring of individual gorillas in traps meant to capture other species. This risk could grow in the future if local communities’ food security situation keeps deteriorating as a result of climate change and fast-growing human populations.  

Mountain gorillas dwindled to an estimated 250 individuals in the Virunga Volcanoes National Park in the 1980s. The global population has been recovering in recent years and now stands at just over 1,000 individuals, thanks to intensive efforts in conservation, research and surveillance. In 2018, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature removed mountain gorillas from its “critically endangered” list. Despite this positive trend, mountain gorillas remain endangered, and human-wildlife conflict – arising from the actual or perceived threat to human livelihoods, interests or needs, posed by wildlife – remains a major threat.  

The Virunga volcanoes photographed from the Ugandan side. ©Photo: Johannes Refisch

Pandemic slashes tourism income 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism income contributed critically to Rwanda and Uganda’s economies and to the livelihoods of communities living near the national parks. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to employment loss and food shortages, as well as a reduced eco-guard presence in protected areas. 

The Nkuringo “buffer zone” lies on the southwestern boundary of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Uganda, hosting half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas – a population of about 459 individuals.

The Vanishing Treasures programme of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in the Greater Virunga landscape is being implemented by the UNEP-hosted Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP). Funded by the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the programme is working in the Nkuringo buffer zone with the International Gorilla Conservation Programme. Other partners working with Vanishing Treasures include the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.   

A hotspot for human-wildlife conflict

Nkuringo is a hotspot for human-wildlife conflict. Local people have suffered significant crop losses due to encroachment by wild animals, including gorillas.  

This provides an interesting opportunity to examine both the ecological and socioeconomic aspects of gorilla conservation. The buffer zone seeks to protect the forest and maintain the ecosystem services provided, keep the animals inside park boundaries, and generate additional employment and income through the production of non-palatable crops such as tea.

Johannes Refisch, Coordinator
UNEP Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP)

Climate change impacts 

Climate change impacts are already being observed in the Greater Virunga landscape. Agriculture is currently the main source of income for most households in the region, and local communities are, therefore, strongly dependent on natural resources.

If increased temperatures, unpredictable weather patterns and water stress limit farming as a viable livelihood option, there is an increased likelihood of locals turning to poaching as an alternative means of income. 

Increased collection of drinking water inside national parks could also lead to further environmental stress and interference with mountain gorillas. 

According to a community survey conducted recently, 83 per cent of community households have experienced drought, 90 per cent reported low yields, 81 per cent suffered from food insecurity, whereas 41 per cent had witnessed an increase in human-wildlife conflicts.  

Agricultural development and the associated clearing of the land pushes right up to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. ©flickr/Jason Houston (CC BY-NC-ND)

Crop and livestock losses 

In addition to having a cost on wildlife, human-wildlife conflict also has a significant impact on the life of local people, particularly those living in poverty. This includes the loss of livestock or crops.  

While human-wildlife conflict can take several forms, crop-raiding is one of the main types of conflict in the region. Farmland in the vicinity of national parks often provides easily accessible forage for wildlife. Crops raided by wildlife can have severe socioeconomic (financial, psychological, social) impacts on the wellbeing of farming communities living around those protected areas.  

With tourism, gorillas become habituated to people and are more likely to leave protected areas to consume fruits and leafy vegetables cultivated by communities. Other species, such as buffaloes or  golden monkeys, are also known to damage crops. 

This can feed antagonistic sentiment towards protected area authorities and decrease peoples tolerance of conservation, potentially leading to more poaching or illegal natural resource harvesting. 

Wall preventing elephants and buffalos to enter agricultural fields, Virunga National Park, DRC. ©Photo: Johannes Refisch

Strategies to raise public tolerance of wildlife damage  

A variety of strategies have been adopted to raise public tolerance of wildlife damage, including the construction of stone walls near the Mgahinga, Virunga and Volcanoes national parks, compensation schemes, tourism revenuesharing with communities living adjacent to parks, the collection of selected natural resources by local communities, and community outreach and communication.  

Correctly assessing the social dimensions of human-wildlife and improving community access to benefits and participation in decision-making is key to creating the conditions for the harmonious coexistence between gorillas and people in the Greater Virunga landscape.

Johannes Refisch, Coordinator
UNEP Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP)

In seeking to contribute to this endeavour, the Vanishing Treasures programme has produced a sand art video to explain the origins of human-wildlife conflict in the region and highlight the current challenges mountain gorillas and their surrounding communities are facing. The full-length video will be released soon. Watch the teaser now:

The killing of Rafiki was not an isolated incident in terms of human-wildlife conflict around the world. A July 2021 UNEP-World Wildlife Fund report reveals that globally, conflict-related killing affects more than 75 per cent of the world’s wild cat species, as well as many other terrestrial and marine carnivore species such as polar bears and Mediterranean monk seals, and large herbivores such as elephants. 

According to the report, human-wildlife conflict is as much a development and humanitarian issue as it is a conservation concern, affecting the income of farmers, herders, artisanal fishers, and indigenous peoples, particularly those living in poverty and without resilience. Yet despite being so strongly linked to the Sustainable Development Goals, human-wildlife conflict continues to be overlooked by policymakers.  

World Gorilla Day on 24 September is an opportunity to raise awareness of the threats facing gorillas, as well as the humans who live nearby, and the symbiotic relationship between the two. 


UNEP-WWF report (2021): A future for all – the need for human-wildlife coexistence

Press release: Human-wildlife conflict one of the greatest threats to wildlife species – WWF and UNEP report

UNEP report (2020): Getting Climate-Smart with the Mountain Gorilla in the Greater Virunga Landscape: A Species and Climate Change Brief for the Vanishing Treasures Programme

Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC) (2019a). Drivers and Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in the Greater Virunga Landscape. Final Report, June 2019.

Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC) (2019b). Vulnerability Assessments of Protected Areas of the Greater Virunga Landscape Vis a Vis Climate Change and Other Threats to Biodiversity under Different Climate Change Scenarios. Final Report, July 2019.