We know quite well that habitat loss as well as hunting (poaching), diseases and military conflicts are currently the most common threats faced by gorillas in their daily fights for survival. (More discussion on the threats in the Endangered Gorillas article).
These are the issues that are, naturally, targeted by local governmental and international organisations.
Additionally, there are unique challenges to gorilla conservation such as very low reproductive rates of these endangered animals, which make conservation work even more difficult.
Over the years mountain gorillas, as the rarest of all gorillas, have probably been the most studied and the most famous species.
The mountain gorilla conservation program has been quite successful and has been touted as a model for conservation in other parts of Africa.
But in spite of the attention that mountain gorillas attract in terms of funding by conservation organisations and coverage by international media, we have seen some interesting actions taking place in the field of western lowland gorilla conservation as well.
Mountain gorillas inhabit the eastern central part of Africa, and their current estimated number in the wild is around 600 – 640 individuals.
The most common threats faced by mountain gorillas are habitat loss, commercial hunting for bushmeat trade, diseases and ongoing military conflicts. For more details on these threats, visit the Mountain Gorillas article.
Biologists consider mountain gorillas an “umbrella species” within some montane forests of Central Africa.
Umbrella species are species that “engender a broad suite of ecological values and act as an ecological proxy for habitat conservation." (2) In other words, conservation of umbrella species would also conserve a large number of other species inhabiting the same areas.
In this sense, mountain gorilla conservation certainly carries a lot of weight for the whole rainforest community that shares their space with gorillas.
The fact that mountain gorillas don’t survive in captivity (they always die early) makes conservation of these animals in the wild even more important.
A whole host of local governmental and international organisations currently operate in Central Africa to implement conservation projects for mountain gorillas.
The conservation program that was introduced during the 1970s – 1980s, spans several areas: (3)
Forest rangers are a very important part of this program – quite often they risk their lives to protect gorillas from poachers.
The success of the emergency care program also led to the introduction of preventive care later.
Many conservationists agree that poverty and lack of employment opportunities are among major causes of rainforest clearance and hunting for gorillas as sources of food.
And now there is a wide consensus that to eliminate the threats faced by gorillas for good, comprehensive solutions are needed which will help tackle both the wildlife management issues and the human poverty problems at the same time.
That is why a crucial aspect of this conservation program was the creation of jobs through ecotourism.
A combination of all these measures succeeded in at least stemming the total demise of mountain gorillas.
Currently, these endangered animals live in areas protected by five national parks in three countries: Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, Kahuzi-Biega National Park in DRC and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.
Living in these parks protects gorillas from potential clearances of rainforest for agricultural land by small-plot farmers who inhabit the areas around these parks.
The general principles of this program have been applied in different forms in other countries, in particular in DRC, Uganda, Gabon, and Central African Republic. (4)
Western lowland gorillas inhabit the tropical rainforests of the central western part of Africa, including Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria and, possibly, DRC. Their current estimated number is around 95,000 individuals (in reality, this number is most likely to be much lower).
Though western gorillas attracted in general less attention than mountain gorillas, the Ebola virus that recently decimated large numbers of these animals brought it home to everyone just how vulnerable western gorillas are, too.
In addition to the Ebola virus, the second most serious threat to western gorillas is commercial hunting for bushmeat trade (aka poaching).
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a prominent US-based conservation organisation, is one of the most active organisations in the western Central African region in the field of western gorilla conservation. WCS works closely with governmental institutions, indigenous groups, the private sector and international partners alike.
Within this coalition of different stakeholders, WCS attempts to apply a comprehensive approach to conserving western gorillas.
WCS’s approach spans the following areas: (5)
It is probably early to assess the results of this work. But the scope of this approach and involvement of most stakeholders do give us hope about the future of western lowland gorillas.
As gorilla conservation seems to be such a complex and multi-faceted issue and the threats that gorillas face seem insurmountable, the long-term prospects for the welfare of these animals may also look grim.
And quite often even successful projects come literally under fire.
In spite of that, it’s very uplifting to hear good news as well.
For example, in 2006 we heard of the very first western lowland female baby gorilla being born at Bristol Zoo Gardens (UK) after the baby’s mother underwent fertility treatment. (6)
It looks like one of the keys to conservation of gorillas is to secure better economic and social conditions for people living in close proximity to these animals. Another one is further development and improvement of existing veterinary programs for managing gorillas’ health.
As long as everyone keeps their focus and determination going, the hope is still there.
Written by: Irina Gray of Tropical-Rainforest-Animals.com
Publication Date: January 2008