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