Mountain gorilla conservation would be challenging without habituation. This painstaking process involves Rangers and trackers gradually increasing the duration and proximity of troop visits until the gorillas no longer perceive human observers as a threat. Age, sex, and unique noseprints are then logged as part of the identification process. Once established, names are assigned, each in memory of one of Virunga’s fallen rangers. A troop is normally fully habituated after two years, at which point tourist groups can visit.
Since it began in 1994, habituation has allowed researchers to observe how mountain gorillas affect their environment and better understand behaviour for the purpose of improving conservation efforts.
It is also critical for tracking births, deaths, migrations and silverback clashes, which can lead to the superseding of dominant males or the division of troops.
Aside from monitoring behaviour and family dynamics, daily visitations allow individual health issues to be identified and illegal activities to be detected and brought to the attention of park rangers.
All in all, habituation has supported healthy population growth of mountain gorillas, a sub-species that is central not only to healthy ecosystems but Virunga’s conservation and developmental aims as well. In 2020 alone, there were 17 births within the park, and with similar successes in neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda the mountain gorilla has been reclassified from critically endangered to endangered by the IUCN.