By Rowenna Hoskin
4 rare mountain gorillas were killed by a lightning strike in Uganda after they had crossed into the Mgahinda national park from Rwanda.
Three females and one male infant were killed, one of the females was pregnant. This was a massive blow for this endangered species having only been moved from critically endangered in 2018. Having had an estimated population of only 680 in 2008, their population has grown to around 1000 by 2018. This is due to an incredible conservation and anti-poaching patrols. This is still a very small total population and the offspring of these three females may have had a very important part to play in the stabilisation of the species.
With four dead, the Hirwa group of 17 members is reduced to 13. The remaining members of the group have been tracked and monitored, the remaining members are healthy and are feeding well. It is unclear as to how many females remain in the group, but the dominant silverback is still alive meaning that the group will remain functioning despite their losses.
Andrew Seguya, the executive secretary of the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration, says that the deaths “[were] extremely sad” and that “the potential of the three females for their contribution to the population was immense.” Their deaths may very well be a massive step back for the population as a female mountain gorilla has less than 10 babies in her lifetime. Motherhood starts at the age of 10, with four-year interbirth intervals which means a female will have between 2 and 6 babies in its lifetime.” With 3 females lost, the Hirwa group will certainly feel the repercussions.
Around half of the total mountain gorilla population live in the forests of the Virunga mountains in central Africa, the Hirwa group is one of these. They come from the Virunga Massif which straddles the border of Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo. It is one of the only two places where the mountain gorilla can be found and is one of the most important conservation sites in the world for this species. They live in the mountainous elevations of 8,000 and 13,000 feet.
The post-mortem tells us that they died from apparent lighting strikes due to the gross lesions on their skin. These wounds are sustained from the electrical energy which burns when it comes into contact with flesh. Laboratory confirmation will take up to three weeks.
This important conservation effort has been sidelined by this unfortunate accident, however scientists remain hopeful that this important population will continue to grow and flourish.