The report of a new census showing that more western lowland gorillas live in the northern region of Republic of Congo than previously thought, has encouraged us at the Gorilla Foundation to step up our conservation efforts. Like all news, this story needs to be examined in proper perspective. The headline of a “mother lode” of gorillas must not be taken to mean that gorillas are no longer in danger.
Our own silverback Michael was a western lowland gorilla orphaned by the bushmeat trade; his relatives continue to be hunted across their range and have suffered huge losses in the thirty years since he witnessed his own parent’s murder.
The reality is that the gorillas in the northern lowland forests of the Republic of Congo are protected largely by geography. The sizeable area they inhabit along Congo’s border with Gabon, Cameroon, and Central African Republic is primarily swampy forestland, difficult to access and until recently, relatively unexploited for its natural resources. This has afforded these gorillas a privacy they do not enjoy in other locations, where logging, slash and burn farming, and commercial hunting are established practices. Unfortunately, significant quantities of ape and other bushmeat from this region of the Congo have been observed in the rural and urban markets outside these forests for well over a decade. Additionally, the scourge of Ebola, which has wiped out 95% of certain gorilla populations in Congo and Gabon, may still spread to this area in the future. The news of this census is cause for redoubled effort, not complacency. Our support of a small community conservation project with the B’aka people of the Dja Nature Reserve in Cameroon is a step toward reducing western lowland gorilla hunting in one of their most threatened habitats.
The B’aka people have celebrated and conserved life in the rain forest for millennia
(Photo by Pete Roberts)
Caution is the Byword when Interpreting Gorilla Nest Counts
At the IPS Congress in Scotland last month, gorilla experts greeted the new North Congo survey reports with caution. The projections were made from a mathematical model taking nest count data from a few hundred miles of census work and projecting to a relatively unexplored region of over 23,000 square miles.
Craig Stanford of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of Southern California told National Geographics News: “If these new gorilla census figures are confirmed by further surveys, it would be the most exciting ape conservation news in years. Nest census data are notorious for varying from one method to the next, however, and I think we should be cautious before assuming the world’s known gorilla population has just doubled.”
Peter Walsh of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, led the 2007 IUCN assessment of gorillas. He repeated those concerns when he learned of WCS’s findings in northern Congo. “It is not that I think that the numbers are necessarily too high,” Walsh said. “It is just that I do not trust the assumptions made by the estimation models that are being used.”
John Oates, professor emeritus of anthropology at Hunter College in New York, noted that “what does seem clear is that there are still plenty of western gorillas in northern Congo.” He remains cautious, however, about whether the new research should signal a change in status for the great apes.
Ground-breaking expose of bushmeat crisis published by
TGF Conservation Director Anthony Rose
It is our view that nothing has changed the immense danger that faces western lowland gorillas. The threats of forest destruction from logging and mining, the continuing expansion of commercial bushmeat trade, and the rising tide of ebola and other fatal diseases render all gorillas at critical risk of extinction. The Government of Congo and its conservation partners promise to step up the protection of this huge great ape habitat. Gorilla Foundation will do what we can to support their efforts.
Clearly this new and refined gorilla census gives us is a wake-up call – a call to action to protect these gorillas, and the area in which they live. Most importantly, we are challenged to increase our efforts to restore the local people’s respect for the intrinsic value of apes as individuals, and as a treasured part of their natural heritage.
Without inspiring deep pride and facilitating broad protection of endangered wildlife, the announcement of a large population of gorillas can become an invitation to hunters and traders to follow the scientists’ tracks and “harvest” more ape meat for the profitable bushmeat market. The worst outcome of this highly publicized report – something we hesitate to even think about – would be the open permitting of gorilla hunting on a limited “sustainable’ basis, as has been done when whales have been found in larger numbers than expected! We have witnessed and reported on the devastation of African rain forests, wildlife, and indigenous people in the name of sustainable exploitation. It must be stopped at all cost.
Koko remains a vigilant ambassador.
In truth, we are concerned about the over emphasis on census numbers that leads conservationists to pit one species against another in the pursuit of limited support for protection. We prefer to inspire a sea change in human values that will motivate broad-based investment in the preservation of all remaining wildlife and wilderness, worldwide.
This is why we are seeking partners in all sectors of society, from internet entrepreneurs to religious missionaries, from real estate moguls to entertainment celebrities, from international diplomats to tribal leaders. It takes a world of caring to save Nature.
The Gorilla Foundation is elated to learn that there are more gorillas in Congo lowland forests than we had thought. Koko and Ndume are happy to hear that some of their cousins in Africa are doing relatively well. Good news is a call to work harder for the welfare of all who are in need.
For Many Gorillas, the News is Still Bad
While census takers debate the numbers and levels of threat to survival of different populations of gorillas, there remain at least three gorilla subspecies at enormous risk of extinction. Because these gorillas have lived in isolation for millennia from others of their kind, they are distinctive in culture and lifestyle, as well as habitat, genetics and appearance. As we expand our reporting on gorilla welfare here at Koko.org, we will bring news of these special great apes on a regular basis.
- The most endangered apes in Africa are the Cross River gorillas, a subspecies with a distinct biology, genetically separated from other lowland gorillas for thousands of years. Less than 300 of these relatively unstudied gorillas live isolated in fragmented islands of forest spotted around the Cross Sanaga Rivers, which run along and across the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. Without a huge increase in conservation efforts, this species is in imminent danger of extinction. Our involvement in vital conservation values research in Cross River gorilla habitat has helped set the stage for further programs that we will be describing in detail in coming Africa Updates.
Conservation Values Team takes a break on its trek into the Cross River area.
(Photo by Denis Ndeloh)
- The better-known mountain gorilla numbers perhaps 700 individuals in three mostly separate populations located in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They live in relatively well protected parks and reserves, but as the widely-publicized murders of several mountain gorillas demonstrated last year, they are still exceedingly vulnerable, and at the mercy of humans. In response to requests from International Primate Society leaders, we intend to provide our educational materials for use in mountain gorilla habitat in 2009.
- Perhaps 8,000 eastern lowland, or Grauer’s gorilla’s, have survived in their once secure forests in the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their numbers have plummeted during the past decade owing to the invasion of their “protected area” by refugees of ethnic wars, as well as illegal miners who destroyed their habitat and killed them by the thousands for bushmeat commerce. New conservation focus on these rare great apes has brought some hope, and we intend to send our educational materials to eastern DRC as well.
Free-living gorillas are found in Africa within the region outlined in red.
The tragic history and dangerous outlook for these three rare subspecies of gorillas is truly a cautionary tale. Even as we develop programs to partner with others to come to their assistance, we must also take care not to ignore the western lowland gorilla. For if there really are twice as many of these great apes as some estimates had projected, then there are twice as many who need us, and twice as many who must be saved.
Koko (signing “Love”) sends her love to all in need
We Need Your Help
The mission and the programs of the Gorilla Foundation are more important than ever. As we mount new efforts and develop new partnerships to come to the assistance of the great apes in Africa we must also intensify our efforts at home in North America and worldwide.
Our unique programs raise awareness, educate and build empathy, enrich gorilla welfare, and offer sanctuary. We ask you to help us spread Ambassador Koko’s loving message of compassion for gorillas and for all the endangered animals struggling to survive in their shrinking homelands.
Given the grave and terrible threats that face great apes — from commercial bushmeat hunting, from habitat destruction, and from disease — they could still vanish in the blink of an eye. They continue to be critically endangered, and they need us more than ever.
Anthony L. Rose, Ph.D., Director of Conservation
Lorraine Slater, Director of Development
To learn more about the new Western Lowland Gorilla census see the <a href=" http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/08/080805-gorillas-congo_2…. ” target=”_blank”>National Geographic article.
To learn about the Cross River Gorillas, see the Cross River Gorilla Action Plan.
To obtain a signed Collector’s Copy of the photo-illustrated book, Consuming Nature, please donate $500 or more to the Gorilla Foundation’s “Baka Gorilla Conservation Project,” by making an online donation and then emailing [email protected] to request the book.