Three great ape survey field team members crouch next to a great ape nest on the ground and collect a fecal sample.

Great ape survey team members collect fecal samples at a nest site.

This year, GRACE completed the first-ever great ape survey of the entire Tayna Nature Reserve, a biodiversity hotspot in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo).

How did GRACE achieve this milestone for conservation? Not alone. Success meant working hand-in-hand with local communities, including:

  • Community meetings to build consensus;
  • A signed commitment to solve problems that might arise; and
  • Hard work of field teams hired and trained from nearby villages.

All this effort yielded good news. The survey confirmed the presence of viable populations of critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas and endangered eastern chimpanzees.

A view of the Tayna landscape shows a tree in the distance with a great ape nest near the top.

Great ape nest in a tree in Tayna Nature Reserve.

About Tayna Nature Reserve

Tayna is one of the last strongholds for critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas. It’s also one of the eastern-most locations where they can be found. In addition to Grauer’s gorillas, Tayna is home to eastern chimpanzees, pangolins, leopards, and many other species found nowhere else in the world.

The reserve is situated within a transition zone between the lowland forests of the Congo Basin to the west and the highlands of the Albertine Rift to the east. The undulating terrain ranges from 850 to 1,850 meters in altitude1.

The reserve forms part of the Eastern Afromontane biodiversity hotspot2, an important area in the region for species diversity and endemism. If that isn’t enough, it’s also an important upland water shed, regulating water flows in the region.

A waterfall surrounded by vegetation feeds into an area of shallow water.

A waterfall in Tayna Nature Reserve.

A Reserve Created and Managed by the Community

Tayna Nature Reserve was created from land donated by community members. Unlike a national park managed by the government, the reserve is managed by the community.

Beginning in the late 1990s, traditional and community leaders led an effort to protect the Tayna area. Their goal was to prevent the loss of local forests, wildlife, and sacred cultural sites to commercial cattle ranchers and agricultural settlements that were creeping westward.

Despite war in eastern DR Congo in the late 1990s and early 2000s, community leaders kept the idea of the reserve alive. In 2001, 21 Barazas (families of traditional landowners) donated land to create the reserve. A local association, La Réserve des Gorilles de Tayna (RGT), was created to manage the reserve.

In 2006, the land was officially declared the Tayna Nature Reserve by DR Congo’s government. The reserve was now completely protected under Congolese law.

A map of eastern DR Congo shows an area of deforestation in yellow extending north and south. To the west in pink are urban areas including the cities Butembo, Beni, and Goma. To the east of the deforestation are more heavily forested areas including Tayna Nature Reserve.

Map of deforestation 2000-2018 in eastern DR Congo near Tayna Nature Reserve. Map courtesy of the Woodwell Climate Research Center.

Deforestation on the Rise

In the lead up to the fieldwork for the survey, GRACE used satellite imagery to assess the state of the forest habitat within Tayna.

The map of Tayna above is centered on Tayna Nature Reserve. It shows relatively intact forest within the reserve boundaries, with a 1.57% forest loss between 2000 and 2018. By comparison, an arbitrary 5 km buffer zone around the reserve shows 5.06% forest loss in the same time period.

The satellite imagery also revealed extensive deforestation (in yellow) in the more highly populated areas (pink) to the east of Tayna Nature Reserve.

As the satellite imagery makes clear, Tayna is at the vanguard of the intact primary forest frontier.

Three members of a great ape survey team hold hands in a line as they cross a river with water up to their thighs.

Great ape survey team overcoming challenging river crossing to reach transects in the Tayna Nature Reserve.

GRACE as a Partner for Tayna Conservation

Today, GRACE is the only international conservation NGO active in the Tayna area. Working in this remote area comes with challenges, including insecurity and disease outbreaks.

While the sanctuary is dedicated to caring for orphaned Grauer’s gorillas, GRACE has taken an active approach in protecting gorillas and their habitat. We do this through conservation education in local communities. Over the years, GRACE has built strong ties with local communities and traditional leaders. As a result, GRACE has become a trusted and valued partner.

This history gives GRACE a unique insight into the challenges and opportunities for conservation in the region. Insight that was critical during the great ape survey.

Dozens of community members, most wearing face masks, gather for a photo outside after the meeting to begin the great ape survey.

Community members gather for a photo after the community meeting to launch the great ape survey.

Community Meeting to Start the Survey

For the survey to be successful, open communication and close involvement of local communities were essential. To kick off this collaboration, GRACE and RGT — the management team for the reserve, elected by locals — convened a formal community meeting. The meeting included:

  • traditional leaders of the two chiefdoms;
  • other local leaders including the elected representatives of the 21 Baraza who donated land to create the reserve;
  • GRACE’s DR Congo Director;
  • the administrator of the Lubero Territory where the reserve is located, and;
  • the management team for the reserve, RGT.

During the meeting, GRACE DR Congo Director Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke presented plans for the survey. Further, he outlined steps for GRACE to train and hire 25 community members for the research. At the end of the meeting, all participants signed a statement agreeing to the terms of the project and pledging their support for the survey.

As Paluku Ndea, member of RGT, reflected after the survey:

“For more than eight years, Tayna Nature Reserve had been forgotten in the region and abroad even though it hosts a very important treasure, the eastern lowland gorillas; a critically endangered species. Fortunately, just at the beginning of last year, we heard about probable research within the Tayna Reserve. This was a surprising and joyful message for us, members of RGT. So, our feeling was unmeasurable and it was something we couldn’t know how to express. In September, truly the survey began under our great collaboration and active participation. This survey, which ended in December, was not only important for the wildlife but also for the Tayna local community which is the first beneficiary of Tayna Nature Reserve.

From the survey, all the richness of Tayna which was already darkened is now known all over the world and all the threats against gorillas are identified so that solutions can be found. Through this survey, all the members of RGT are re-engaged for the protection of gorillas, our rare and endangered neighbors, sources of revenue and community development.”

– Paluku Ndea, member of RGT

Great ape survey team members walk carefully over a log placed across a river.

Great ape survey team members cross a river in Tayna Nature Reserve.

The Global Pandemic Hits

Just weeks after the community meeting, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. Survey plans called for GRACE Science Advisor Dr. Damien Caillaud to visit GRACE in May 2020 to train survey field teams. With travel shut down, this was no longer possible.

The survey had already been significantly delayed due to the Ebola outbreak (2018-2020) which came with 15 km of GRACE. Fear grew that delaying the survey any longer might result in the community abandoning the project and disengaging from conservation. The survey would be the first major conservation project in nearly a decade. It would also be the first return of financial support for conservation in a poverty-stricken area.

Rather than risk the project falling apart, GRACE and partners pivoted to remote training of the field teams.

Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke holds a compass and points in a direction ahead of him within the forest.

GRACE DR Congo Director Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke practices field skills in the forest near GRACE.

Remote Training of Field Teams

How do you train teams in great ape survey techniques in the dense forest environment of Tayna – over video? That was the question for GRACE Science Advisor Dr. Damien Caillaud and GRACE staff. Fortunately, they found a solution:

  1. Dr. Caillaud shot a series of 15 short training videos in a wooded location using the same equipment and supplies the team would use on the reserve (GPS units, a compass, etc.).
  2. GRACE DR Congo Director Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke and GRACE Field Project Managed Ben Visando made the hours-long drive from GRACE to the city of Butembo to download and watch the videos. They then discussed the videos with Dr. Caillaud over Zoom.
  3. Jackson and Ben practiced their field skills in the forest near GRACE for 3 weeks.
  4. Beginning in September 2020, Jackson and Ben led a 15-day training of 5 field teams in the techniques they’d learned from Dr. Caillaud’s videos. In addition, Jackson and Ben trained all teams in strict COVID protocols which had to be followed at all times

Reflecting after the survey, Dr. Damien Caillaud said:

“With this extensive survey, we know where gorillas and other key species range within the vast Tayna forest. GRACE can now focus protection efforts on these areas, and at the same time work with the local communities to reduce the impact of mining and hunting on other areas and make them suitable again for a large number of species.”

– Dr. Damien Caillaud

Two great ape survey team members point to the center of a great ape nest on the ground.

Great ape survey team members collect fecal samples at a nest site.

So, How Does the Great Ape Survey Work?

The survey began with another community meeting to introduce the field teams. Then the teams headed out into the reserve.

Tayna is a remote and heavily forested area with no roadways. Teams traveled on foot through the rugged terrain. Supplies had to be carried in and out by porters, up steep hills and across rivers.

In addition, strict COVID protocols meant team members could not return home to their families until the survey was finished. With no cell or radio communication possible either, the teams were truly on their own in the forest.

The five survey teams covering the 900 km2 reserve used a modified “fast transect” method. What does that mean?

  • In this method, a team leader positions himself just behind the trail opener, who helps create a path through the dense vegetation. The team leader carries a GPS that automatically records points every 50 meters.
  • Two trackers walk on both sides of the team leader and stay within 50 meters. Together, they “sweep” a 100-meter-wide corridor looking for animal prints, food remains, dung and nests.
  • When animal sign is detected, the team leader takes the GPS coordinate of the sign from their position and records the species, type of sign and age. If a great ape nest is found, the leader also takes the GPS location of the center of the nest.

Throughout the survey, teams also collected data about human activities using the same methods. These included snares and other traps, gun shells, and signs of logging and cultivation.

A great ape survey team member wearing white gloves organizes plastic containers on a bench made from sticks.

A field team member organizes samples at camp.

Collecting Samples and..Listening for Parrots?

Any time survey teams found fresh (<3 days old) gorilla dung, they collected a sample following standard biomaterials protocols. Over time, and with continued monitoring, these samples will help build genetic profiles of the individual gorillas within Tayna.

The presence of survey teams in this remote and little-explored region of the Congo Basin presented an opportunity to gather data for partner organizations. Therefore, survey teams also collected fecal samples for Gorilla Doctors to help trial a remote great ape health monitoring tool and recorded all auditory observations of grey parrots for the World Parrot Trust.

Kambale Kinaba, survey team leader, shared his reflections after the survey:

“As one of the members of the field teams, I have been very happy and satisfied because of the survey we did in Tayna for four months and which ended positively. We have all been very interested to hear about the final results of what we did about our great apes in particular and all the wildlife in general. This is a good hope for us and for the future.

The survey in Tayna has been very important because:

  • It has shown us the reality of Tayna Nature Reserve to date.
  • It has taught us new research methods.
  • Through this survey, we hope to see Tayna in its former design.

I, member of the field team during the survey, protect gorillas because:

  • They are protected by the law.
  • They are a rare species, and critically endangered.
  • They deserve protection for future generations.

Gorillas are a world treasure and source of revenue for us, members of the field teams and all the local communities.”

– Kambale Kinaba, Survey Team Leader

A great ape nest, formed from a dense cluster of sticks and vegetation, in a tree.

A great ape nest in a tree in Tayna Nature Reserve.

The Good News: Great Apes Survive

The great ape survey took 70 days to complete, with 5 teams each with 1 team leader, 4 trackers and additional porters and cooks. In that time, teams found:

  • 41 nest sites from <3 days to 5 months old
  • 305 gorilla nests
  • 280 chimpanzee nests
  • 62% of gorilla nests and 85% of chimpanzee nests in trees
  • 61 gorilla fecal samples collected for analysis
  • 25 additional animals’ signs identified (including at least 5 species of monkeys, pangolin, forest buffalo, African grey parrot, leopard, a single Okapi footprint and more!)

The survey pulled back the curtain on Tayna’s great ape populations. It confirmed that Grauer’s gorillas and eastern chimpanzees still survive in Tayna. This confirmation is a feat only possible through work of teams on the ground in this remote, densely forested area.

Dr. Katie Fawcett, GRACE Program Director, emphasized the importance of the results:

“Finding great apes in Tayna was by no means certain, after such a long period of their status being unknown, and knowing that great ape numbers are plummeting in the rest of their habitat. Confirming their presence was a great success for us to be able to find.”

– Dr. Katie Fawcett, GRACE Program Director

People stand in a row holding a banner with the meeting name and date.

Baraza members and RGT staff with GRACE DR Congo Director (third from left) at the community meeting.

A Major Achievement for Community-Led Conservation

The survey was a milestone for community-led conservation in Tayna and a first in multiple ways:

  • It was the first survey throughout the entire 900 km2 reserve
  • And it was the first successful internationally funded conservation action in the reserve since 2011.

As GRACE DR Congo Director Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke reflected:

“The completion of the survey depended on support from communities in the Tayna region, namely the 21 Baraza who donated land to create the reserve. These people working together in a difficult area, where no one believed we could do such work – I’m really proud of what we accomplished.”

– Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke, GRACE DR Congo Director

The participatory consultation process with local community members was essential for success. So was the engagement and extensive training of local community members to lead field data collection.

The future for conservation in Tayna is brighter now. That’s because the survey created a large team of trained community members capable of furthering conservation and gorilla monitoring initiatives.

A closeup of the face of a Grauer's gorilla at the GRACE sanctuary.

Grauer’s gorilla at GRACE. Photo © Deni Béchard.

Gorillas are Still in Crisis

The great ape survey confirmed that Grauer’s gorillas and eastern chimpanzees have not disappeared from Tayna. But it also identified ongoing threats to their populations, including mining, hunting, and cultivation.

People living this area are among the poorest in the world. Many depend on subsistence agriculture. They depend on the forest and its resources for their livelihoods. Continued human population growth and pressures from urban areas to the east risk exacerbating this problem. And the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak (2018-2020) and COVID-19 only add to the dangers.

At the same time, the community is the reason Tayna Nature Reserve exists in the first place. And the great ape survey makes clear that the community can accomplish major conservation feats, if they are supported.

GRACE is now working to re-establish ongoing gorilla monitoring efforts in the reserve. We continue to work with Tayna community leaders to build capacity. The great ape survey is a major achievement to celebrate. But together, we need to continue to support community-led conservation of Tayna to protect gorillas, chimpanzees, and their forest home in one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet.

Help GRACE Gorillas

About GRACE

Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in the U.S. that operates the world’s only sanctuary for Critically Endangered Grauer’s gorillas in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The largest primate in the world, Grauer’s gorillas only live in war-torn eastern DRC. Their numbers have dropped by nearly 80% in the past 20 years due to heavy poaching. They are considered one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world with only 3,800 individuals remaining in the wild.

GRACE cares for 14 orphaned gorillas rescued from poachers and works to rehabilitate them so they can one day return to the wild. At GRACE, the gorillas live in a single gorilla group that functions as a surrogate family and spend their days in protected forest habitats. GRACE also leads field research and partners with local communities on education and conservation initiatives to protect a critical population of wild gorillas living in Tayna Nature Reserve. For more about GRACE, visit gracegorillas.org.

References

  1. Mehlman, P. (2010). The Tayna Community-Managed Nature Reserve in Democratic Republic of Congo: A Grass-roots Approach to Conservation and Resource Management. In Yanggen, D., Angu, K and Tchamou, N. (Eds.) Landscape-Scale Conservation in the Congo Basin, Gland : IUCN.
  2. BirdLife International (2012). Eastern Afromontane Biodiversity Hotspot. Ecosystem Profile for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.