for National Geographic News
Deep in the hinterlands of the Republic of the Congo lies a secret ape paradise that is home to 125,000 western lowland gorillas, researchers announced today.
The findings, if confirmed, would more than double the world's estimated population of gorillas.
Western lowland gorillas are a subspecies classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Their numbers have been devastated in recent years by illegal hunting for bush meat and the spread of the Ebola virus. Just last year scientists projected the animals' population could fall as low as 50,000 by 2011.
Now those predictions may have to be dramatically reworked to incorporate findings released today by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
A first ever ape census in northern Congo found 73,000 of the gorillas in that country's Ntokou-Pikounda region and 52,000 more in the Ndoki-Likouala area.
The Ndoki population includes an obscure group of nearly 6,000 gorillas living in close quarters in isolated swamps near Lac Télé.
"We knew there were apes there, we just had no idea how many," said WCS's Emma Stokes, one of the lead researchers in the two-year project.
The gorillas have thrived thanks to their remoteness from human settlements, food-rich habitats, and two decades of conservation efforts in one of the world's poorest countries, Stokes said.
Shy, But Plentiful
Lowland gorillas are more common than their mountain cousins. The animals are found in tropical forests and swamps in Angola, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon.
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