Photograph by Allan Carlson, WWF
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Rafiki (pictured above with a female) had led his group of 17 gorillas since 2008.

Photograph by Allan Carlson, WWF

Beloved silverback gorilla killed by poachers in Uganda

The killing of the 25-year-old male, Rafiki, follows a rise in illegal activities as tourism dries up in Uganda.

Poachers have killed a well-known mountain gorilla, delivering a setback to decades-long conservation efforts to pull the subspecies back from the precipice of extinction.

Authorities in Uganda arrested four suspected poachers following the death of Rafiki, a 25-year-old silverback who led a group of 17 gorillas in western Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park since 2008, according to a June 12 statement by the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

The great ape, a favorite of tourists, died after a poacher thrust a spear into his belly, penetrating as deep as his internal organs, according to a post-mortem report. The last time a mountain gorilla died at the hands of humans was in 2011.

Rafiki's family regularly foraged beyond the park boundaries, making it “a symbolic group in regard to co-existence” with people, says Anna Behm Masozera, director of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, a regional coalition of environmental groups. “Rafiki’s death, and the circumstances surrounding it, are significant. He was the only mature male in this iconic group.”

Rafiki went missing on June 1, and a search party found his mutilated body the following day. Rangers tracked a suspect to a nearby village, where he was allegedly found with bushmeat as well as snares, a spear, and bells to be strapped to the collars of hunting dogs. He admitted that he and three others had been hunting antelope in the park and that he killed Rafiki in self-defense after the animal attacked.

Under Uganda’s stringent laws, the four men face life imprisonment or a fine of $5.4 million if found guilty of killing an endangered species.

Though Rafiki was not killed for bushmeat, the incident follows warnings from conservationists and government officials that the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying lockdowns could force people to resort to poaching out of desperation. The country’s nationwide curfew has closed national parks and suspended ecotourism expeditions to see the gorillas in their natural habitat, the main source of revenue for gorilla conservation.

“Park managers across the mountain gorilla range are indicating higher than normal human activities, many illegal,” Behm Masozera says.

That in turn ramps up additional dangers. Illegal hunting may bring people into contact with mountain gorillas, as was the case with Rafiki, and increases the risk of transmitting coronavirus to these primates, which can catch respiratory diseases from humans given our genetic similarity. (Read how the Ebola virus is devastating mountain gorillas.)

A major setback—but still hope

Mountain gorillas have undergone an astonishing revival in recent years, following decades of devastating civil war and unbridled poaching that reduced their population to around 350 animals in the 1980s. The great apes, which now number more than a thousand individuals, are split between two main populations in Bwindi and a network of parks in the Virunga range of extinct volcanoes. In 2018, the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded their status from critically endangered to endangered. (Learn more about Virunga National Park and the challenges of protecting its gorillas.)

Winning the Battle for Endangered Gorillas in Africa's Oldest National Park

Part of the winning strategy for bringing the species back is working with local communities and supporting their ecotourism efforts, Behm Masozera says. But the absence of cash-rich Westerners in recent months has destroyed the livelihoods of local porters, shopkeepers, hotel staff, and other workers from communities living around the edge of the national park. Tourists pay upward of $600 per person for a permit to visit gorillas for one hour. (Read more about what it’s like to see mountain gorillas in Uganda.)

While some people can fall back on subsistence farming, the upcoming dry season will reduce agricultural production and worsen their economic situation.

Beyond poaching, conservationists are concerned Rafiki’s death could splinter his family, known as the Nkuringo group.

“Silverback gorillas, like Rafiki, play a really important role in group stability and cohesion so this loss, will have a major impact on the group,” says Cath Lawson, primatologist and regional manager for East Africa at WWF-UK. “His death is tragic.”

It’s possible another silverback not as habituated to people could take over the group, driving the animals away from tourists and further disrupting the region’s economy.

When silverbacks have died in the past, the remaining members often disperse into other groups where infants can be killed by other silverbacks.

Despite the challenges, conservationists are determined not to lose the gains made by decades of work to protect mountain gorillas.

“This is a setback,” said Behm Masozera. “But peaceful co-existence is a pursuit, and not achieved overnight.”