Sosthene’s research project combines behavioral data collected in the field with hormonal data analyzed in the lab. The results of this study will characterize the specific behavioral patterns around the time of ovulation in mountain gorillas; specifically mating behavior, patterns of mating solicitations, and any evidence of coercion (aggression) by the silverbacks directed towards the females.
Sosthene (center) with research assistants.
We asked Sosthene a series of questions about his work and here are some of his responses. In a few days we will post another round of Q and A with Sosthene.
Q. How do you identify the gorillas in your group?
A. Some primates, like gorillas can be identified by their faces. In particular, mountain gorillas can be recognized and named individually by looking at their nose-prints! Each of the 480 mountain gorillas found in the Virungas has a different nose print, similar to human fingerprints!
In some cases, experienced trackers help with rapid identification because nose-prints are not always visible. We use additional tips like the gorillas’ group; the group/lone individuals’ home range; the body size; the status and darkness of hair; the other mountain gorilla individuals found often in proximity (for example: individuals from the same mother, infants or a favorite female around the dominant silverback).
Other ways for identification include abnormal gestures (for example: Gutangara, a female from Pablo’s group, is always nudging her left shoulder); and also malformations (for example: Umwana, a female from Inshuti’s group has a straightened finger).
Q. Are there any former poachers working as Karisoke field assistants now? How does this transition work?
A. Recruiting former poachers was among the initial strategies to get effective information on illegal activities in the National Park of Volcanoes, Rwanda. By recruiting former poachers, they helped us gather a lot of information on the poachers’ networks; the types of snares; the other materials used and from where they got those materials; the target animals; the time of entering and getting out from the forest; the tracks used; the most frequented areas; and the time that they spend in the forest.
Karisoke and national authorities use the resulting information to reinforce the anti-poaching patrols and to efficiently sensitize local communities on biodiversity protection. Karisoke recruited one exceptional former poacher, who is now retired. We still have some former poachers working as trackers in with the gorillas’ groups monitored by the Rwanda government for tourism. The recruited former poachers are welcomed by gorilla trackers! They are still considered as an asset to their daily work of gorillas’ protection.
In addition, they have excellent experience in the forest! Some days, the tracking of gorillas is too hard or even unsuccessful, but the former poachers are consulted to find easy and right tracks! On other side, the resulting collaboration ended the friendships of the former poachers with their former colleagues, as they no longer share trust.
Today, the number of poachers has decreased. Most of them have been integrated in local organizations like traditional dancing troupes, handcrafts small-enterprises, and farming associations. But, some persisting poaching activities are observed; in 2010, Karisoke reported 1,927 snares.