Mississippi State scientists with expertise in sophisticated electronic tracking systems are part of an ongoing international effort to protect the few remaining great apes of Africa.
A university team at the Forest and Wildlife Research Center is using equipment that can generate information based on geographic location to determine when and where endangered mountain gorillas come in contact with humans and domestic animals.
The MSU effort is part of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, which provides health care for the 650 remaining gorillas in the Central African countries of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Every year, tourists from throughout the world pay big bucks to trek into the gorillas' distant jungle habitat. While they contribute much-needed revenue to the cash-strapped region, the visitors also pose possible health risks to the animals.
"The mountain gorillas have been catching diseases from tourists in the Virunga Mountains and Vwindi Impenetrable National Park," said MSU research scientist Rich Minnis. "Though only about 10 tourists make guided visits to the gorillas each day, a recent outbreak of mange among the animals has prompted scientists to take a closer look at the interaction of the mountain gorillas with humans, other primates and livestock.”
Minnis said the MSU research effort focuses on spatial information—time and space—in relation to the gorillas. Using data collected by guides as they take tourists into the refuge, the researchers record the location of the animals with a global positioning system, which uses satellite signals to plot locations on the ground.
"This data can then be incorporated into a geographic information system, or GIS, to determine where the gorillas travel and when they cross paths with humans,” Minnis explained. "During the next nine months, we expect to record about 1,200 gorilla observations.
"Once incorporated into the GIS, the data will tell us where the gorillas travel and at what times and locations they come in contact with humans or livestock,” he added.
Funded by the Englewood, Colo.-based Morris Animal Foundation, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project includes scientists from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., the Baltimore Zoo, and the Uganda Wildlife Association, among others. The organization began work with the gorillas in 1986 at the urging of anthropologist Dian Fossey, whose 18-year study of the endangered primates inspired the 1988 movie "Gorillas in the Mist.”