Oct 18

The threatened eastern gorilla is in grave danger as a result of a recent surge in the trafficking of baby gorillas.

Juvenile mountaint gorilla image

Juvenile mountain gorilla

Wildlife officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are reporting a marked increase in the trafficking of Critically Endangered baby mountain gorillas, a subspecies of the eastern gorilla, and warn that the situation is rapidly getting out of control. With poachers demanding up to $40,000 (£25,350) per animal, the authorities are struggling to combat the escalation in illegal trade.

On the edge

The mountain gorilla is an extremely charismatic species, and certainly an impressive one, with mature males growing up to 1.7 metres in height and attaining weights of more than 150 kilograms.

The future of this magnificent species is, however, currently uncertain. As a result of human activities including armed conflict, targeted hunting and accidental trapping in snares intended for other animals, the mountain gorilla has been creeping ever closer towards extinction for decades, with a total population of fewer than 800 individuals left in the world. This recent surge in trafficking, if left unchallenged, could tip the balance.

Mountain gorilla image

Female mountain gorilla

The ape escape

Earlier this month, a team of rangers from Virunga National Park went undercover in the town of Kirumba, near the park’s western border, and posed as potential buyers. They were able to make contact with poachers who were hiding an 18-month-old eastern lowland gorilla, another subspecies of the eastern gorilla, in a small backpack. A deal was agreed upon, and once the rangers had the young gorilla in their possession, the poachers were immediately arrested.

Further incidents have been recorded this year in the DRC and in Rwanda, involving both eastern lowland and mountain gorillas, making this the fourth such rescue since April.

Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park, voiced his concerns about the growing market for baby gorillas which is currently feeding the trafficking activities: “We are powerless to control the international trade in baby gorillas, but our rangers are doing everything they can to stamp it out on the ground. Four baby gorillas seized in less than a year is unusually high … [but] it’s only the tip of the iceberg, as we only manage to catch a small proportion of the offenders because the wildlife service is under-resourced in Congo.”

Image of animal traps

Guard showing all the animal traps collected within two months in Virunga National Park, habitat of the mountain gorilla

The latest victim

The newest baby gorilla orphaned in the name of animal trafficking is Shamavu, named after the ranger who rescued him. It is likely that the young gorilla’s family were killed in order to pry him away, but despite this, Shamavu is one of the lucky ones. Not only was he rescued, he was also in relatively good physical condition, something which cannot be said of a lot of the baby gorillas rescued from poachers.

“Many of these infants are injured from ropes around their hands, feet or waist, and some are quite ill, which is not surprising as they are generally in close contact with their human captors, extremely stressed, and with very poor nutrition,” said Dr Jan Ramer, a vet with Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project (MGVP), a partner of Virunga National Park.

Mountain gorilla family image

Silverback mountain gorilla resting with group

The next step

These rescues offer a glimmer of hope for the future of the mountain gorilla, but sadly the news is not all good. Officials report that they lack the resources and jurisdiction to investigate the trafficking further, and as a result do not know where the gorillas are headed or who is involved.

“What we do know is that just the rumour that someone is looking to buy a baby ape can be enough for penniless hunters to think: ‘I could get one of those and sell it for $$$$!’,” said Ian Redmond, chairman of the Ape Alliance.

Emmanuel de Merode is calling for stronger enforcement of legislation, particularly in the market countries where the demand for baby gorillas is high, and asks for increased surveillance in towns and along borders. He adds that local communities may be key players in halting the trafficking which is causing such devastating losses to an already-fragile species.

Read more on this story at The Guardian – Trafficking of baby gorillas poses new threat to endangered species.

View photos and videos of the eastern gorilla on ARKive.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author

Sep 8

A comprehensive census of the Critically Endangered mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) began yesterday in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, under the coordination of Ugandan wildlife officials and staff from international conservation organisations.   

 

Female mountain gorilla photo

A female mountain gorilla

WWF funding 

The survey is being part-funded by WWF-Sweden. As well as the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the census may also include parts of the neighbouring Sarambwe Nature Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo if the security situation remains stable enough. 

The IUCN estimated that in 2006, a total of 680 mountain gorillas remained in just two isolated populations. One population is located in the Virunga region of the mountainous forest borders of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, while the second occurs in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in south-western Uganda. 

WWF report that the most recent estimate of the mountain gorilla population stands at 786 wild individuals. 

Photo of an infant mountain gorilla

An infant mountain gorilla

Populations slowly growing 

According to WWF, mountain gorilla populations are slowly growing thanks to the efforts of conservationists. A number of measures, such as anti-poaching patrols, habituation projects and veterinary monitoring, have been vital in helping to protect and increase the highly vulnerable populations of this species. 

However, despite the best efforts of these organisations, a series of threats – including illegal poaching, capture of gorillas, increasing human-gorilla conflict and habitat destruction – continue to threaten the magnificent mountain gorilla. 

With fewer than 800 mountain gorillas left, it is essential that every individual be protected from harm,” says David Greer, WWF’s African Great Apes Programme Coordinator. 

Through our partner the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, we are working closely with rangers and law enforcement investigators to ensure that when a wildlife crime does occur, evidence is handled properly so prosecutors can make a strong case in court.” 

Image of a mountain gorilla silverback

Mountain gorilla silverback portrait

Economic value 

Each mountain gorilla living in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is estimated to generate around $1 million per year in tourist revenue for the Ugandan economy. 

The Ugandan government recognises the value that the mountain gorillas bring to the country, and punishments for wildlife crimes tend to be stricter than in the other neighbouring countries. 

According to WWF, the results of the current census are expected to be released in nine months time. 

This allows time for scientists to carry out genetic analysis of faecal samples, which are being collected to reduce the possibility that individuals have been double-counted. 

Find out more about the Eastern gorilla on ARKive 

Read the full WWF Press Release 

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author 

May 17

A new study offers hope for the survival of species with critically low populations, such as the Siberian tiger and mountain gorilla, which in the past were deemed ‘too rare to save’.  

The findings of the UK-US research team, suggests that as long as conservation efforts target the key threats to an endangered species, even relatively small populations could be viable in the long term.

Photo of a captive Philippine eagle

Philippine eagle

Minimum Viable Population 

The study, published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, critically analysed the use of a key concept in conservation policies, the Minimum Viable Population (MVP). MVP is the estimated minimum size of a population that will have a 99% chance of avoiding extinction over the next 40 generations. 

Because, money and resources for conservation are limited, MVP is often used to decide whether or not a species should be the focus of conservation efforts. For species with very small populations, such as those numbering less than thousands of individuals, previous studies have suggested that it might be too late to act and that it is better to concentrate these limited conservation resources elsewhere. 

However, the authors of the latest study argue that there is no “magic number” for saving endangered species, and that population sizes required for long-term viability varies greatly and depend on the specific circumstances in which the population is found.

Photo of Siberian tigers greeting

Siberian tigers

Implications for endangered species 

The findings of the study have important implications for conserving some of the world’s most charismatic endangered species, which often exist in populations numbering in the hundreds, or even less. 

Examples include the mountain gorilla, which numbers 1,000 or less, the approximately 450 remaining Siberian tigers, the 180-500 remaining mature Philippine eagles, and the 70 wild Puerto Rican amazons

Dr. Greg Hayward, the U.S. Forest Service’s regional ecologist for Alaska said, “This is good news for biologists working to save species like the tiger. There’s a lot of work to do to arrest the effects of poaching, prey loss and habitat destruction. However, if that work is successful, the tiger might yet be able to recover, despite the relatively small size of most tiger populations.”

Photo of Mountain gorilla with young

Mountain gorilla

The authors argue that conservationists should not give up on saving an endangered species, even if its population is very small, and advise policy-makers to be cautious about setting guidelines for ‘safe’ population sizes. 

However, they also warn against potential complacency as no population size is likely to be safe from extinction when conservation activities fail to tackle the threats causing a species’ population to decline. 

Read more about this at ScienceDaily – ‘There’s No Magic Number for Saving Endangered Species’.

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author

Apr 8

The 2011 winner of the Future for Nature award was announced in Arnhem, Netherlands, earlier this week. Ofir Drori created an inspirational and pioneering charity called The Last Great Ape Organisation (LAGA) in Cameroon, West Africa.

Ofir Drori, Future for Nature award winner

Ofir Drori of The Last Great Ape Organisation (LAGA), receiving his award

The Future for Nature award acknowledges individuals who embody an approach to conservation that is entrepreneurial, innovative and shapes the future of conservation.

Ofir and his team focus their efforts on the illegal bushmeat (wild animal meat) trade. Each year in Central Africa between 10,000 and 20,000 tonnes of gorilla, chimpanzee and bonobo meat is sold illegally.

Intensive logging and mining operations in the Congo basin have facilitated and expanded the trade, because they open up large tracts of this important tropical rainforest that had previously been untouched. New roads to transport timber and minerals are also used as bushmeat trade routes, and provide access for cheap transport to move large quantities of bushmeat to urban centres.

Colombo-tantalite, mined for use in mobiles and laptops, miners rely on poached bushmeat for food

Miners of colombo-tantalite which is mined for use in mobiles and laptops, rely on poached bushmeat for food

Once adult apes have been killed for meat, their orphaned progeny are sold as pets. They rarely live for very long, unless they are rescued and cared for by specialist ape sanctuaries that are now an unfortunate necessity. Great apes have low reproductive rates so any hunting pressure at all reduces their populations to critical levels. All four species of African great ape are considered Endangered or Critically Endangered by the IUCN.

Photo of a male western lowland gorilla

The Last Great Ape Organisation investigates wildlife crime in Cameroon. They provide support for government officials to be able to prosecute criminals who try to sell not just illegal bushmeat, but animal skins, ivory from forest elephants, and live animals such as African grey parrots. LAGA ensures that prosecutions are transparent by providing legal assistance, as well as making sure these cases have as high a profile as possible by using the power of the media, photographs and film to act as a deterrent to others.

Photo of a forest elephant bull

In the last few months alone, three dealers have been arrested in Cameroon for trading in elephant tusks, and five wildlife dealers arrested with a primate and seven sea turtle shells.

This vital work is not without its dangers. Just last month a LAGA employee working undercover was kidnapped by ivory dealers. Thankfully he was rescued unharmed, but this incident only highlights why Ofir Drori and his Last Great Ape Organisation are so deserving of this prestigious award.

For further information on the illegal bushmeat trade, see: Recipes for survival: Controlling the bushmeat trade. (2006)

Nick Cockayne, ARKive Assistant Editor

Mar 24

Nick Cockayne, ARKive Assistant EditorI’ve been working as an Assistant Editor at Wildscreen for just under two years and before that I was working in the television industry. I studied Zoology at Bangor University and I’ve been interested in wildlife ever since I got my first butterfly field guide for my 6th birthday! My days are now spent editing films for ARKive highlighting different behaviours of endangered species. In any one day I’m lucky enough to see many different wildlife sequences, from the lethal western diamond-backed rattlesnake to the angelic harvest mouse.

When I’m not sat behind a bank of computer screens I generally prefer being outdoors to indoors, whether that be walking, mountain biking or just lounging around in my garden photographing bugs!

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently editing short species films ready to take into schools. ARKive takes part in the STEM ambassador programme, inspiring young people in Science Technology, Engineering and Maths. We’re looking for budding David Attenboroughs by helping the students to research a species and provide the narration to our films! We’ve picked some exciting animals from a variety of habitats for them to research, including emperor penguins in the Antarctic and birds of paradise in the tropical rainforests of Asia.

What animal skill would you most like to have?

Chimpanzees could definitely teach me a thing or two about tool use – I’m rubbish at DIY!

Which three people would you invite to the ultimate dinner party?

This is a really tricky one…do I mix business with pleasure, invite heroes that may disappoint? I’d have to go for George Harrison because I was born on Merseyside and he’s my favourite Beatle. Ernest Hemingway would receive my second invitation because although he wasn’t particularly interested in doing anything with wildlife other than shooting it, he had an incredible life travelling all over the world befriending many literary stars, and his parties were legendary! My final dinner guest would have to be Dian Fossey. Her story awakened me to the wonderful continent of Africa, and the plight of the mountain gorillas. I’m not so sure they’d all get along though…

Where in the world would you most like to go?

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many parts of the world and I’ve seen some truly amazing wildlife along the way, studying South East Asian pit vipers (Trimeresurus stejnegeri) in Northern Thailand and seeing forest elephants in the Congo basin. I fell in love with Africa at a very young age and if somebody said I could spend the rest of my life exploring this colourful continent with its diversity of people, cultures, wildlife and landscapes, I’d be a very happy boy!

Which celebrity do you most look like?

I don’t think I look like anyone in particular – you’d have to ask my colleagues! My nickname in Bristol however is Daddy G, the same as the Massive Attack musician, although this has nothing to do with music! Daddy G started off as Gorilla Nick and has slowly evolved over the years, a bit like all of us!

What’s the best wildlife encounter you’ve ever had?

I had one of my best and one of my worst wildlife encounters on the same day. It was the very first evening I arrived in Cameroon to begin working with western lowland gorillas and chimpanzees that had been orphaned by the illegal bushmeat trade. Ape Action Africa had been caring for an orphaned four week old forest elephant calf as her parents had been killed for their meat. Hamuda had become sick and had slipped into a coma. My first job straight from the airport was to help carry her somewhere warm and comfortable to spend the last few hours of her tragically short life. Later on that night I was introduced to my first orphaned western lowland gorilla. A boisterous young chap called Nkamum. I prepared and warmed his milk formula and peeled his mango before feeding him and getting him ready for bed! It was an unbelievable roller coaster of emotions that reinforced how important front line conservation work really is.

What’s your favourite thing on ARKive?

I thought about selecting something different but in the end I just couldn’t help myself. It’s the gorillas. Always has been and I suspect always will be!

Tell us an animal related joke.

A man walks into a bar with a lizard* on his shoulder. He walks up to the bar and asks for a pint for himself and a half for Tiny.

The barman serves him but finally curiosity got the better of him.

Barman: Why do you call him Tiny?
Man: Because he’s my newt!

*I realise newts are amphibians but ‘A man walks into a bar with an amphibian on his shoulder’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it does it?

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