Illegally hunted for bush meat, devastated by unsustainable deforestation and driven away by unlawful mining: in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), one subspecies of eastern gorilla is struggling to cling on. The Grauer’s gorilla (which is closely related to the mountain gorilla, but has shorter hair and longer limbs) has seen its numbers drop from 17,000 in 1995 to just 3,800 in 2016. Conservationists are now calling for the world’s largest ape to be listed as ‘critically endangered’ on the IUCN Red List.
The odds have been against the Grauer’s (or eastern lowland) gorilla since the Congolese civil war ravaged the country in 1996. As refugees fled the Rwandan genocide, neighbouring Zaire (renamed the DRC in 1997) became occupied by militia groups, many of which used illegal artisanal coltan mines (a mineral used to make mobile phones) to fund their operations. With the sites located deep within the forests, miners had no choice but to hunt bush meat to survive. The Grauer’s gorilla, weighing up to 180kg, was a valuable target. As the subspecies live in cohesive social structures, hunting large groups was easy.
The utter breakdown of government control at the onset of this humanitarian crisis meant that for more than a decade conservationists could only guess at the gorilla’s current status. Though 69 rebel groups continuing to occupy the eastern region, a fresh headcount has finally been possible. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Fauna & Flora International (FFI) have found that, since 1994, Grauer’s gorilla populations have declined by a devastating 77 per cent. Nearly 80 per cent of these losses have occurred in as little as one generation, which is three times the rate required for an IUCN ‘critically endangered’ listing.
“As one of our closest living relatives, we have a duty to protect this gorilla from extinction”
‘As one of our closest living relatives, we have a duty to protect this gorilla from extinction,’ says Stuart Nixon, one of the study’s co-authors. ‘Unless greater investment and effort is made, we face the very real threat that this incredible primate will disappear from many parts of its range in the next five years. It’s vital we act fast.’
Thalia Liokatis, DRC Programme Coordinator at FFI, says that gaining concrete data has been a huge achievement: ‘It will enable us to reclassify the species and develop urgent priority activities aimed at saving it. The biggest challenge will be to secure continuous funding so that the main threats to Grauer’s gorillas can be tackled – dealing with artisanal mining, providing alternative proteins to bush meat, supporting income generation for local communities and maintaining habitat connectivity.’
At one site in Kahuzi-Beiga National Park, Grauer’s gorilla populations have increased from 181 to 213 in the past five years. The study’s lead author, Andrew Plumptre of WCS, says it’s up to the government to regain control and enable similar success across the eastern region: ‘The government needs to quickly establish Reserve des Gorilles de Punia and the Itombwe Reserve, and reinforce Kahuzi-Biega National Park efforts, and to establish strong coordination between ICCN and the DRC military to tackle armed militias that control mining camps in the Grauer’s gorilla heartland.’
This was published in the September 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.