Eastern Lowland Gorilla Numbers Plunge to 5,000, Study Says

John Pickrell in England
for National Geographic News
March 31, 2004
Following a decade of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,
new estimates suggest that the number of eastern lowland gorillas (see
sidebar) may have plummeted by 70 percent. Conflict, illegal mining for
a mineral used for electronic-device components, and the growing
bush-meat trade have all taken their toll, according to conservation
groups that announced the preliminary findings this week.

The news contrasts sharply with recent, more detailed surveys for another gorilla subspecies, the eastern mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), which is found mainly on the Virunga Mountains in the Congo and Uganda. Those surveys showed that mountain gorillas rebounded by up to 17 percent during a similar period.

According to Washington D.C.-based Conservation International (CI) and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in Atlanta, detailed surveys carried out in 1994 prior to the war revealed that there were perhaps 17,000 eastern lowland gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri). Today, according to the latest rough estimates, fewer than 5,000 may remain.

"Alarming Decline"

In reaction to these findings, CI has pledged some three million U.S. dollars to conservation projects in the region, hoping to slow the species's steep decline over the next few years.

"The staggering and almost immediate disappearance of the eastern lowland gorilla underscores the alarming decline of an entire ecosystem," said Juan Carlos Bonilla, CI's senior director for central Africa. "But this joint effort—which includes everyone from tribal chiefs to nongovernmental organizations and national governments—represents an unprecedented commitment to preserve the region."

Devastation from the war itself and a "modern day gold rush" for the rare metallic ore coltan (which is in high demand for the manufacture of components for cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices), have driven destruction of the rain forests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Bonilla said.

The region is home to 97 percent of the eastern lowland gorilla's habitat. Illegal mining of coltan, including in conservation areas, has flourished over the last decade, and the camps that accompany them are centers for trading bush meat (the meat of wild animals, including gorillas), Bonilla said. "One of the many reasons for civil conflict has been the scramble for access to these natural resources," Bonilla said.

The new population estimate is based on extrapolations of small surveys and information gathered from talking to local people, said Patrick Mehlman, a primatologist and director for Africa programs with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (DFGFI) in Goma, DRC. "The figure is a best guess from experts that know the region well," he said.

Multimillion-Dollar Investment

Part of CI's new investment will be used by DFGFI to plan much more detailed surveys of the eastern lowland gorilla and other species such as the forest elephant, Mehlman said.

More of the funding will be ploughed into the DRC's Maiko National Park—that reserve, another one called Kahuzi-Biega, and neighboring regions are home to nearly all eastern lowland gorillas.

Though Maiko's one million hectares (3,800 square miles) of rain forest have been protected by law since 1970, "in reality, it's what we call a paper park," Bonilla said. "It exists in law, but very little, if anything, has been going on in the way of protection on the ground," he said.

"Maiko Park has never received one thin dime of international support before now," Mehlman agreed. He added that some of CI's new funding would be used to support building infrastructure, including a new research station, and providing technical assistance, equipment, and training for park guards. "We need to get wildlife authority staffers out into the park to do anti-poaching patrols and educational awareness programs," he said.

DFGFI is also working with local people to help them set up a unique corridor of community reserves potentially covering three million hectares (11,500 square miles) of land that will link Kahuzi-Biega with Maiko National Park.

Community reserves are under the traditional authority of local chiefs and have been welcomed by many communities as a good opportunity to manage resources and develop economic alternatives in the form of ecotourism and agroforestry (the production of food, crops, and trees on the same land). "These communities want to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and pull themselves out of the mess left by the civil war," Mehlman said.

Long-Term Commitment?

"It's certainly tragic to think that two-thirds of eastern lowland gorillas have disappeared in the last decade," said Brenda Bradley, western lowland gorilla researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. "But it's great that [these nongovernmental organizations] are making a concerted effort to reverse this trend. Given the success that conservation efforts have had in saving the mountain gorillas, we can be optimistic [for lowland gorillas]," she said.

"It's really important that money is going into eastern Congo," said Amy Vedder, former mountain gorilla fieldworker and vice president of the Living Landscapes Program at the New York City-based Wildlife Conservation Society. "Grave concerns exist for the status of the eastern lowland gorilla.

"A large infusion of money over a short period of time can help start significant conservation activities, but the most important factor in success will be a long-term commitment made by government, local actors, and conservation organization partners," Vedder said.

Future financial resources to continue the work that begins this year might come from the Congolese government or perhaps a long-term financial mechanism such as a trust fund, CI's Bonilla said.

For more gorilla news, scroll down for related stories and links.

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