In films like “King Kong” and “Planet of the Apes”, gorillas are formidable monsters who pose a direct threat to human survival. But in real life, humans have played the role of monsters in the human-gorilla relationship. Because humans destroyed their habitat and poached them, gorillas are now among the most endangered apes in the world.
Fortunately, a new study offers conservationists a glimmer of hope for the largest of the four gorilla subspecies, the Grauer’s gorilla (also known as the eastern lowland gorilla). They are still very much in danger, but there are thousands more than previously thought.
It all comes down to location. In 2016, a study by the Wildlife Conservation Society estimated Grauer’s gorilla population at around 3,800, a drop of almost 80% since the last major survey conducted two decades earlier. The new study, however, did not include the full range of eastern lowland gorillas due to political insecurity in some areas. Now that the Wildlife Conservation Society has been able to include field survey data in the Oku forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), it can update that figure: it now estimates that there are 6,800 left. individuals within this majestic gorilla species rather than just 3,800.
But environmentalists say the news should be taken with a grain of salt – as 6,800 is still a low number for any animal population, and suggests a genetic bottleneck.
“The main findings are that the number of gorillas has not declined as severely as feared … rather it has increased,” Dr. Andrew Plumptre, lead author of the study, told Salon by email. “We show that they remained stable in the Oku region but declined in Kahuzi Biega Park, where the rebels have been present for 20-25 years.”
He added that the chimpanzees had not declined as much, possibly because they don’t move in groups like gorillas, but separate and merge again into a structure known as the social fission-fusion system.
âThe two monkeys have remained stable in the Oku region west of Kahuzi where the human population is very low, and there is some respect for traditional law. Many traditional leaders are promoting the conservation of gorillas and wild animals. chimpanzees, âadded Plumptre.
This raises the next, and perhaps the most important, question: Are there reasons for hope and, by extension, lessons for other environmentalists?
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“It is necessary to withdraw the armed rebel groups from Kahuzi Biega if there is any hope of saving the gorillas in the lower part of this park,” Plumptre explained. âHowever, there has been a lot of support over the past 20 years to conserve these monkeys and now traditional leaders and local communities are supporting the conservation of these monkeys. Oku’s results show what is possible where the rebels are not present and the local community respects traditional laws.
This, in turn, leads to what Plumptre has learned about how conservation efforts can be successful.
“The importance of the local population and the traditional society and laws that are respected locally has led to better conservation in the face of the presence of armed rebels,” Plumptre observed. âRebel groups have not been as present in the Oku region and the conservation of the local community has been successful here. The armed groups hunt monkeys for bushmeat because they are relatively large and provide more meat by ball.”
This intersection between political complexities and gorilla conservation was also highlighted in the study’s conclusion.
“The civil war in [Democratic Republic of Congo] and the continued presence of armed rebel groups made conservation extremely difficult, âthe authors wrote. âConservation efforts are now focused on local communities who are able to live and operate in and aroundâ gorillas, they add.