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World's Rarest Gorillas Gain New Refuge

Dan Morrison
for National Geographic News
April 22, 2008
 
The rarest gorillas in the world are being protected in a new sanctuary nestled in the mountains of Cameroon, the government announced recently.

A community of 20 Cross River gorillas now live in the Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary, the first exclusively dedicated to this subspecies of western lowland gorilla.

The apes are listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union: As few as 250 to 300 survive.

The animals are scattered over 11 mountain and forest sites in Cameroon and Nigeria, driven to the verge of extinction by hunting and loss of habitat.

Cameroonian Prime Minister Ephraim Inoni announced the Kagwene sanctuary in a decree on April 3.

(See an illustration of a Cross River gorilla, recently named one of the 25 most endangered primates.)

Every Ape Counts

Researcher Jacqueline Sunderland-Groves has studied Cross River gorillas since 1997. She established the Wildlife Conservation Society research team working in the area.

The Kagwene sanctuary is "a major conservation achievement for this subspecies," Sunderland-Groves said.

Cross River gorillas are the northernmost and westernmost subspecies of gorillas. Their diet is more diverse than that of western lowland gorillas, and Cross River gorillas are found in a wider range of habitats, including lowland forests, mountain forests, and grasslands.

Richard Bergl is curator of conservation and research at the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro.

"Given the small size of the Cross River gorilla population, every single individual is important for the long-term survival of this subspecies," he said.

"Wildlife populations of this size can be very sensitive to the loss of even a few animals," he said.

Another Link in the Chain

More than 60 miles (97 kilometers) to the west of Kagwene lies the only other sanctuary where Cross River apes can be found: an eight-year-old preserve on Afi Mountain in Nigeria.

Conservationists want to create a chain of sanctuaries—a wildlife corridor—that would protect the gorillas living between Afi and Kagwene.

This would allow them to safely travel—and mate—between localities, ensuring continued genetic diversity.

"This subspecies [is] patchily distributed across a broad landscape, and protection across their range requires a network of protected areas and corridors," Sunderland-Groves said.

A 2006 action plan by researchers calls for a chain of sanctuaries that would cost U.S. $4.6 million to establish.

"Kagwene on its own would perhaps not have a huge impact because it protects just one part of the population and its habitat," said John Oates, professor emeritus at Hunter College in New York, who helped write the plan.

"But getting the area protected is a step in getting the larger landscape better managed, from a conservation point of view.''

(Related: "Two New Wildlife Parks Created in Congo" [September 25, 2006].)

Gorillas Are People Too

Though ringed by human settlements, the gorillas at Kagwene have a leg up other great apes.

While gorillas elsewhere in Cameroon and Nigeria are vulnerable to poachers, "Kagwene is unique, in that the gorillas were not traditionally hunted by local communities," Sunderland-Groves said.

Many local people believe that gorillas are actually humans and therefore cannot be killed, she said.

(Related: "Gorillas Found Tossing 'Weapons,' Study Says" [January 30, 2008].)

"Unfortunately, the strong belief in totemism [or kinship] in relation to gorillas is not widespread and only a handful of villages across the gorilla range believe that the gorilla is their particular totem," said Aaron Nicholas, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Still,"there seems to be a common recognition that the gorilla is a unique animal and a general acceptance that the hunting of gorillas should not be allowed," Nicholas said.

The sanctuary, which has served as a Wildlife Conservation Society research station for several years, will continue to be managed by the nonprofit. The refuge will also be staffed by local villagers trained in conservation.

"Protecting any population of these gorillas is critical to their future," said Rebecca Stumpf, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"Protecting more would be preferable."
 

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