Leventis African Biodiversity Fellow 2024

James Munyawera


As an experienced researcher with over six years of hands-on experience in protecting, monitoring, and studying mountain gorillas, my journey into environmental conservation stems from a deep-rooted childhood passion for nature. From a young age, I found myself drawn to the outdoors, accompanying my parents on tree-planting expeditions and livestock herding ventures. This early exposure ignited a fervent interest in environmentalism, leading me to take on leadership roles in high school environmental clubs. 

Inspired by prominent environmental figures, I recognized the critical impact of climate change on our planet and its inhabitants. Driven by a desire to make a tangible difference, I pursued a degree in environmental sciences, particularly focusing on Biology, to give back to society and contribute to environmental protection efforts. 

Upon graduation, I was thrilled to join the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, where I embarked on remarkable research, protection, and conservation work dedicated to the preservation of endangered mountain gorillas. As a Research Assistant, the opportunity to interact closely with these majestic creatures for four days a week filled me with immense joy and a profound sense of purpose. This firsthand experience has deepened my appreciation and passion for biodiversity and reinforced my commitment to conservation efforts. 

I firmly believe in the pivotal role of science-based conservation in addressing urgent environmental challenges, such as the detrimental effects of climate change on endangered species, their habitats, and the delicate balance between humans and the environment. My work with mountain gorillas has not only enriched my understanding of the interconnectedness of all life forms but has also instilled in me a profound sense of responsibility toward protecting our planet's natural heritage for future generations. 

Research Interests

Throughout my career, I have been driven by a passion to help my community and address environmental challenges, particularly those related to climate change. As a child, I witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of climate change, such as flooding, erosion, and landslides, which inspired me to pursue a career in biological sciences to help my community fight these environmental issues and provide future planning policies. For instance, during my undergraduate studies, my final year thesis research project focused on understanding and reducing greenhouse gases emitted from fossil fuels. This research looked at the ways of optimization of the cultivation of macroalgae for biofuel production. 

 After graduating, my dreams came true when I joined the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (DFGF) as a Research Assistant before I was promoted to the Data and Operations Coordinator for the gorilla program. In my tenure in these positions for the gorilla program for over six years, I have gained extensive experience in collecting and managing gorilla long-term data, which includes demography, behaviours, diet, ranging pattern, health, biological samples for genetic and physiological analysis, as well as leading the operations removing the anthropogenic threats in the gorilla’s habitat. Furthermore, I believe in the value of sharing my skillset; this is why I provide pieces of training to the DFGF field staff and Rwandan biology students in the collection of these data and the conservation of biodiversity.  

In addition to understanding the feeding ecology of gorilla food species, I am also considering expanding my knowledge in understanding and predicting the continued growth of gorillas and their key food plant species in relation to global future climate scenarios under the species distribution modeling.  

I believe that Oxford University is the ideal institution to further develop my skills and expertise in conservation biology. By studying at Oxford, I hope to enhance my ability to protect mountain gorillas and their habitats, as well as contribute to informed policymaking in environmental conservation. I am confident that Oxford University will provide me with the necessary tools and knowledge to contribute to my future career as well as help me to make a meaningful impact in the field of conservation biology. 

Current Focus

The mountain gorillas live in the isolated island of the Virunga massif in three countries namely, Rwanda, Uganda, and The Democratic Republic of Congo. The recent census has shown that they are the only great apes’ species in the wild whereby their numbers are increasing.  

However, due to their limited habitat, the interaction between families (group encounters) has dramatically increased which unfortunately has increased the rate of infanticide and posed stress to these populations. Thus, to ensure the long-term survival of these great apes, the government of Rwanda, the Rwandan government plans to expand their habitat, benefiting not only the gorillas but also the surrounding biodiversity.  

As a researcher, I am fascinated to understand how these plants which are going to be reintroduced to the lands formyl previously used for agriculture will adapt to future climate scenarios. Through the use of species distribution models (SDMs), I aim to predict the sustainability of the gorilla’s key food plant species in the face of changing environmental conditions. This research will not only offer valuable insights into the gorillas’ ecosystem but also contribute to conservation efforts aimed at protecting these remarkable animals and their habitat. 

Brief CV


(2013-2017) College of Science and Technology, University of Rwanda, Biology-Biotechnology (BSc) 

  • Dissertation: “Contribution to the Optimization of Algal Production as Biomass for Generating Biofuel”. 


Work Experience 


October 2023 – Present, Data and Operations Coordinator, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund 

January 2021- December 2023, Social Media Coordinator, The Society for Conservation Biology, Africa Region. 

February 2018 – September 2023, Research Assistant, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund 


Award and Honours 


2024 A.G Leventis African Biodiversity fellowship, Measuring habitat suitability and future predictions. 


2023 Leakey Foundation Baldwin fellowship, validating a novel non-invasive technique for quantifying thermoregulatory effort in wild mountain gorillas, with the use of a thermo-camera. 

2022 Field Course scholarship, Kenya, Tropical Biology Association 


2017 Biodiversity Art Competition Winner, Centre for Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resources Management, University of Rwanda. 


2016 Best Demonstrator Award, Second annual Research and Innovation Week in Science and Technology, University of Rwanda. 


Networks and memberships 


IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group; Section for Human-Primate Interactions, 2023-Present. 

The Society for Conservation Biology, Africa Region 2021-Current  

Primate Society of Great Britain, 2022- Current.