The Virunga and Bwindi forests are key elements of the Albertine Rift eco-region, which is of major importance at a global level in terms of biodiversity. Most notably, these forests are home to the highly endangered mountain gorilla.

The natural forests of the region play a critical role in regulating the water cycle across a very large catchment. The Virunga volcanoes are particularly important, as rainfall on the volcanoes is more than three times that of surrounding areas.

Within park-adjacent communities, many people have traditionally used non-timber forest products such as bamboo, firewood and natural medicines. Access to such products has been particularly important for poorer, marginalized, and vulnerable groups such as the Batwa pygmies.

Most people living around these forests are very poor. They also include groups, such as the Batwa (pygmies), who have been historically marginalized and are among the poorest people in the region, along with others who have little or no land.

In areas immediately around the Virunga volcanoes, the porous soils cause severe shortages of water in the dry season. Water shortages cause dysentery, which often results in child mortality.

The majority of people live off of semi-subsistence agriculture. Most of the area has volcanic soil with high intrinsic fertility that permits intensive production of a wide range of crops including cash crops (potatoes, vegetables, pyrethrum, tea, etc.). Livelihood security has declined, however, and continues to fall in many areas as production is reduced due to declining soil fertility, a phenomenon resulting from a combination of soil erosion and continuous cropping without adequate nutrient inputs.

Across the region, high population densities and declining soil fertility increase pressures on land and biodiversity. The majority of farmers possess very small plots of land (often much less than one hectare per household). There are opportunities for improving market linkages of and services to farmers; however, market access is limited by lack of information, weak organization, and poor transport infrastructure.

The National Parks’ associated tourism industry generates significant benefits for the countries. However, economic analyses show that communities living closest to the national parks, and particularly the poorer elements of these communities, often experience significant costs, notably damage to crops by wildlife and foregone use of park resources. This raises issues with the equity of conservation costs and benefits.

For many years, a high level of insecurity and political instability has affected the Great Lakes Region, resulting in major negative impacts on the livelihoods of rural communities and the environment. Most countries in the region have experienced civil unrest and sporadic episodes of violence since independence, which have often had cross-border effects in terms of refugee flows and regional tensions. Protected areas, because of their remote location and inaccessible terrain, have been important strategic areas in these conflicts, used by rebels for sanctuary, and national armies for undetected access to neighboring countries.

The situation remains very difficult in Democratic Republic of Congo, although certain areas around the park (southern Rutshuru) have regained a level of stability since mid 2009. Uganda and Rwanda, however, have experienced a protracted period of stability over the last 15 years. National development is making progress. Rural development investments and the devolution of the overall development process are gradually reaching remote areas such as those around the Virunga and Bwindi forests.

Conservation measures have been taken to protect the flora and fauna within the Virunga.

Conservation Efforts

Anti-poaching and law enforcement
The taxon is legally protected in all three of its range states. Great efforts must be made by the range states to enforce their laws concerning gorillas, including not only effective anti-poaching, but also follow-up of the legal process through arrest and prosecution of all cases judged guilty.

Maintenance of habitat and corridors
The level of legal protection given to Mountain Gorillas and their habitat is appropriate. The four national parks are managed and supported by the governments of DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, by international conservation NGOs, and partially financed through gorilla watching tourism. The gorillas are highly vulnerable to disease and poaching but, in comparison with the other gorilla subspecies, they are for the moment relatively secure. However, given the current insecurity and instability in eastern DRC, this could change quickly.

Regulatory provisions
CMS: Gorilla gorilla sl has been listed on the Appendix I of the CMS since 2005.
CITES: Gorilla on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endengered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1975.
ACCNNR: Gorilla listed in A class of The African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources since 1969.

Management of National Parks, faunal reserves, and game reserves in DRC is delegated to the Institut Congolais pour la
Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), which also manages scientific research. Effective control of many protected areas in the east of the country has been in the hands of rebel authorities in recent years. The Mountain Gorilla is totally protected in DRC, owning, transport and/or trade is forbidden or regulated. A person who captures or kills gorillas in a strict nature preserve faces imprisonment from 1 to 10 years.

The Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN) has direct responsibility for management of national parks and
matters relating to ecotourism. The Volcanoes NP therefore falls under its responsibility. The Department of Environment has overall responsibility for biodiversity conservation. The Mountain Gorilla is totally protected in Rwanda. Owning, transportation and/or national trade is forbidden or regulated (ECOLEX). Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda is a biosphere reserve.

In Uganda, the Uganda Wildlife Statute provides tools for the establishment of wildlife conservation areas, which fall under two categories: wildlife protected areas (national parks or wildlife reserves) and wildlife management areas (wildlife sanctuaries and community wildlife areas). It is forbidden by the national legislation to capture Mountain Gorillas (Uganda Wildlife Division, 2002a). As all Mountain Gorilla populations occur within protected areas (national parks and reserve), they and their habitat have some degree of protection.

However, political and institutional instability as well as illegal hunting and poaching may undermine such protection. National laws in all range states exist for the control of hunting and capture of gorillas, although wide enforcement of the legislation is difficult due to lack of funds and inaccessibility (Nellemann & Newton, 2002). When Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks were created, access to the park was forbidden for everyone except authorized researchers, which resulted in a significant reduction in illegal activities (Nowak, 1995). Extractive use of non-timber forest products is allowed in certain zones (multiple-use zones) of the park.