Philadelphia zoo welcomed a baby western lowland gorilla to their troop last week. Their new little boy will be looked after and kept safe, but his relatives in the wild face a much less certain future.
The western lowland gorilla is slightly smaller than other subspecies of gorilla, with males growing up to 1.8 metres (six feet) tall, and have a more prominent brow and smaller ears. Infants have a white patch on their rumps, making it easier for their mothers to keep track of them. Like other gorillas, they mainly live on a diet of leaves and stems, but this subspecies also enjoys fruit. These animals are quiet and non-aggressive, only ever attacking when threatened.
Western lowland gorillas have the highest numbers of all the gorillas, found in the forests and swamps of several countries in western central Africa, but they’re still critically endangered. Numbers are estimated to have declined by as much as 60 per cent in the last 25 years and, according to the IUCN, their population is predicted to see a drop of 80 percent in just three generations between 2005 and 2071. Their habitat is being cleared for grazing, roads, building and agriculture, but their biggest threat is from illegal poaching for bushmeat. Their body parts can also be sold as charms or for medicine. Infectious diseases, especially Ebola, have wiped out the majority or even the entirety of some populations, and civil unrest and fighting in their territory have put even more pressure on the gorillas.
It’s hard for scientists and conservation groups to estimate how many western lowland gorillas are left in the wild, as they often live in dense forest, but surveys in the last two decades resulted in a tentative estimate of 150,000 to 200,000. This might seem like a healthy number, but they are considered critically endangered because of the sheer scale of the threats they face and the dramatic losses already experienced by some populations.
Multiple groups, charities, organisations and programmes are working to try and protect this vulnerable species. Philadelphia zoo, where the baby was born, is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan programme, which aims to sustain populations of endangered species. WWF is educating local people about the bushmeat trade and assisting research into Ebola. The Republic of Congo created a new 4,572 square kilometre (1,765 square mile) national park in 2013, after around 125,000 individuals were discovered in the north of the country.
So the western lowland gorilla is by no means safe, but there are lots of people putting a great deal of effort into saving them. Hopefully Philadelphia’s baby will be more than just a cute attraction for visitors, as the zoo says the troop are used to educate the public and raise awareness of the difficulties facing the species. With enough help and protection, it may still be possible to stop these gentle giants from being lost.
(Header photo: Smudge 9000/flickr)