Some of our closest animal relatives are facing a struggle for survival. Gorillas are critically endangered, and without our help these amazing great apes could be lost forever
With their intriguingly human-like features, intelligent eyes and individual personalities, these huge apes’ numbers are dwindling. Hunting and poaching, habitat degradation and also the spread of diseases (most notably Ebola) are to blame, and conservation efforts are required in order to bolster the numbers of these amazing primates. Gorillas play a crucial role in the ecosystem. By feasting on shoots, stems, leaves and fruit of the trees that make up their rainforest home, the gorillas help to disperse seeds and prolong the life of the tropical woodland. In fact, in areas where gorilla populations are severely depleted, specific tree species that are known favourites of the great apes have become scarce. These apes are also known to feast on small animals and insects. Living in close familial units, gorillas spend most of their day foraging for food – adult gorillas can eat up to 30 kilograms (66 pounds) per day! A gorilla family is headed up by a dominant alpha male, known as the silverback. The patch of silver on his back is the mark of a mature male. The silverback leads his group of females, juveniles and infants, and the young males stay with the family until they are mature – usually at around 12 years old. They will then break away from the group and move off to start their own family.
Saving the gorilla
Conservation has never been more important for these mighty beasts, as they face a variety of threats to their survival. One of the largest threats to gorillas across the Congo Basin is that of illegal hunting for bush meat. Although apes aren’t the only target to supply meat to the cities (where bush meat is considered a prestigious delicacy among some communities), gorillas are easy targets for poachers as they are large and relatively slow movers, and provide a great amount of meat to sell. Even if gorillas aren’t the target for hunters, the setting of snares for other animal species presents an issue, as the gorillas get caught in these traps. These large apes are also sought after and hunted for exotic pets, and for use in traditional medicines. Habitat loss and degradation is another huge factor in conservation. Many gorilla species live in protected reserves, but there are still areas where logging is commonplace. The clearing of woodland not only rids the gorillas of trees to climb, feed on and nest in, pushing different troops closer together and forcing animals into smaller habitats, but it also opens up the woodland and gives poachers easier access. Another threat to gorilla survival is the spread of disease, and Ebola has been responsible for the death of thousands of gorilla families. As well as infecting people, the hemorrhagic fever has killed off a third of the world’s gorilla population.
There are two species of gorilla, and each have two subspecies. The two species of gorilla live in the tropical rainforests of equatorial Africa, and are separated by a huge expanse of rainforest between the eastern and western varieties. Each species has two subspecies, a highland and a lowland type. The two subspecies of eastern gorillas are the eastern lowland and mountain gorillas, and the western subspecies are the cross river gorillas and the western lowland gorillas. Each subspecies has subtle differences in their physical appearance and behaviour. The western lowland gorillas live in the lowland swamp and rainforest of central Africa. They live in the smallest social groups, and this subspecies is the most numerous with around 100,000 individuals. The cross river gorilla is the world’s rarest gorilla subspecies. Population numbers are incredibly low, and many of this subspecies live in unprotected forests. Towards the east of the gorilla realm the stocky-looking eastern lowland gorilla can be found, with many troops living in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Threatened by bushmeat poachers and habitat degradation, numbers have declined drastically in recent years. The last of the subspecies is the mountain gorilla. This species was discovered in 1902, and it is thought that there are around 700 in existence. However, due to dedicated conservation efforts the population of this species is on the rise.
David Hewitt is the communications manager for The Gorilla Organization, dedicated to saving gorillas in the wild through conservational and educational ventures across the mountain gorillas’ habitat in Africa, we caught up with him to hear about the charity’s amazing work
What is The Gorilla Organization and what does it do?
We’ve been going for 25 years now and we grew out of the Dian Fossey Digit Fund – the money that was left by Dian Fossey to commemorate her favourite mountain gorilla Digit was re-branded as The Gorilla Organization. We have a base in London, and then a presence with projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda – the three countries where mountain gorillas live in the wild. We are a conservation and development charity. We address both the short term and long term issues affecting a gorilla’s life.
What kinds of projects are in effect?
The short term is to keep the gorillas safe here and now. That includes anti-poaching – we support the rangers that work for the national parks by equipping them and helping them with their training. They carry out daily patrols to remove snares from the forest floor set by poachers and stop destruction of the forest for charcoal and firewood. In the longer term we are addressing why people are going into the forest in the first place. We help the communities trying to make a living outside of the forest. We support sustainable training for farmers so that they have their patch of land and they don’t need to destroy more forest.
What are the main successes so far?
The big success at the moment is a reformed poachers program in Uganda and Rwanda. It’s an amnesty where former poachers symbolically give in their spears and their rope snares. We help them to become either sustainable farmers, or some of them are putting their skills that they learned during their criminal activity to moving to the tourism trade. They know the trails and the forest and they can now take tourists in to see the gorillas and therefore make a living without having to hurt the gorillas.
Why is it important to protect gorillas?
They are so genetically similar to us, they are gentle, wise, very family orientated and peaceful. They are also a key species for the forests. Like elephants, by moving everyday and by leaving their droppings they are playing a vital part in the ecosystem. One major concern right now is that there’s a clash between the gorillas and people. Gorillas might invade villages because it used to be forest, which endangers the gorillas. They can also catch human diseases. We are planting a million trees around the edge of the national park to act as a green buffer. This will minimise the risk of human/gorilla interaction.
For more information on how to get involved visit www.gorillas.org.
Great ape saviours
Here are just a few examples of the dedicated charities and organisations that are doing everything they can to bring gorillas back from the brink
FFI has been at the forefront of gorilla conservation for decades. In 1979, inspired by what he witnessed while filming his iconic Life On Earth series, Sir David Attenborough approached FFI to help save these animals, catalysing the formation of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) – a collaboration between several leading conservation organisations that has since helped to more than double the mountain gorilla population. FFI is also working to conserve other gorilla subspecies including the Grauer’s gorilla, whose numbers have fallen by a shocking 77%.
Gorillas have been a flagship species for WWF for over 50 years. The organisation’s Great Apes project works to protect all four of the gorilla subspecies by working to reduce the effects of poaching and hunting. The project also focuses on improving the effectiveness of conservation efforts through working alongside and educating the local people and also educating the international community about the plight of gorillas. WWF also works with other gorilla conservation programmes and strives to push through protection policies, most notably the Gorilla Agreement of 2008.
Dr Dian Fossey was one of the most dedicated advocates of gorilla conservation, and set up the Karisoke Research Centre in Rwanda in 1967. Dian loved all of the gorillas she protected, but she had a special relationship with a male she named Digit. When Digit was brutally murdered by poachers, she set up the Digit fund which was later renamed The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International after the death of Dian herself. Now, the Fund as well as the Karisoke Research Centre protect over one third of the mountain gorillas in the area. As well as monitoring the gorillas, marshalling anti-poaching teams and supporting local communities, the centre also takes in orphaned gorillas.
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