A New Silverback for IGCP: Augustin Kanyunyi Basabose

A New Silverback for IGCP: Augustin Kanyunyi Basabose

Anna Behm Masozera

Augustin Kanyunyi Basabose, one of Africa's leading experts on Great Apes, is now the Interim Director of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) - a coalition of the African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna & Flora International, and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Basabose, who has the nickname within IGCP of 'Daktari' meaning Doctor in Kiswahili, is now also affectionately referred to as our new silverback. He takes on this new title after EugËne Rutagarama, who served as IGCPís Director for the last nine years, moved to another role in the organization. Basabose has been with IGCP since 2006, most recently as Species Conservation Coordinator.

Basabose's celebrated career in began with a surprising research subject - the lowly mosquito. However, a chance encounter with Professor Juichi Yamagiwa from Kyoto University, Japan, changed his career trajectory to the study of Africa's Great Apes. Basabose has a PhD in zoology from Kyoto University for which he completed a dissertation on chimpanzee ecology in DRC's Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

Below is a Q&A with the new silverback of IGCP:

Q: Why should mountain gorillas be protected?

A: Despite the conservation efforts which have led to an apparent increase in their overall population, the mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) are still threatened and listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

The mountain gorilla is only found in three countries in Africa: Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are found in two populations: approximately 302 individuals are located in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda (331 km2) while approximately 480 individuals are located in the Virunga Massif (444 km2). The estimated total number of individuals is only 782 in the wild with an additional 4 individuals currently in a sanctuary under the care of the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature in the Parc National de Virunga (DR Congo).

The main threats that affect populations of mountain gorillas include the loss or modification of their habitat; poaching (killing of individuals for the capture of infants); the effects of war and political instability and diseases transmission.

The mountain gorillas habituated for tourism and research are monitored on a daily basis and in case of life-threatening illness or injury, specially-trained veterinarians intervene. However, we must not turn our backs to those mountain gorillas that are unhabituated and therefore are not given names and monitored daily. They deserve to live out their lives in peace from poaching threats as well.

The bottom line is that mountain gorillas, even with the increase in the population over the last few years, are still vulnerable as a species, a species that so many people around the world care about. While mountain gorillas are so physically strong, they are also very fragile.

Q: What have you learned about conservation during your last six years working with IGCP?

A: I have learned that it is now impossible to conserve wildlife without the participation of local people. We should promote and strengthen the new conservation strategy that seeks to involve local communities in wildlife management.

Community-based conservation shouldn't be seen as a substitute for protected area approaches, but instead should be designed as part of conservation approaches to integrate into national conservation strategies.

Q: What do you think are the emerging challenges facing conservation of mountain gorillas?

A: Mountain gorillas are surrounded by some of the highest human densities in Africa with human populations around the mountain gorilla parks ranging from 400-1000 people per km2.

The pressure for agricultural land is high and likely to increase with climate change. It is expected that climate change may negative impact on agriculture productivity leading people to exert more pressure on mountain gorilla habitat looking for more productive agriculture land, and thus threatening the survival of mountain gorillas. With respect to climate change, the survival of mountain gorillas is directly tied in with how human beings will adapt to our changing climate and ultimately our very own survival mechanisms.

Disease transmission from humans to gorillas is another emerging challenge facing mountain gorilla conservation. It represents a significant threat to the survival of mountain gorillas due to their close genetic relation to humans and susceptibility to human diseases. Given the small sized and isolated population, any infectious disease may quickly sweep through an entire population. 

Q: What is the one thing that you would like to achieve during your time as Interim Director of IGCP?

A: One of the key initiatives that IGCP is working on is in the development of a water strategy and getting it implemented along with our partners in the Virunga-Bwindi landscape. My goal is to see this a reality and ensure that the interventions that IGCP does with water have direct and positive impacts on the conservation of mountain gorillas.

I am also keeping an eye on the projects that I maintain under IGCP's species conservation approach including getting a functional regional database server installed where regional data related to mountain gorillas and habitat can be entered, stored, updated, secured and easily accessed by all authorized users when they need it.

About the Author

Anna Behm Masozera is the Director of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme since 2013. Originally from Iowa in the United States, she has called the hills and volcanoes of the Greater Virunga region home for many years, previously serving as Communications Officer for the coalition organization.