Home > biodiversity, ecology, wildlife > New report says world’s largest primate is on fast track to extinction

New report says world’s largest primate is on fast track to extinction

Grauer's gorilla infant

An infant Grauer’s gorilla is carried on the back of an adult. Photo courtesy Wildlife Conservation Society, photo by A.J. Plumptre.

The eastern lowland gorilla, Earth’s largest primate, is in rapid decline and has seen its population decline by nearly 80 percent since the late 1990s. There are now fewer than 4,000 individuals of the subspecies remaining in the wild.

Such is the bleak conclusion of a report released in April.

Persistent war in the animal’s home range, which is limited to a forested region in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, is the leading culprit for the rapid extermination of the great ape species.

“Since 1996, the entire range of Grauer’s gorilla has been consumed in conflict,” the report said. “This has resulted in an almost complete breakdown in government control, including wildlife protection activities.”

Grauer's gorilla - courtesy FFI, photo by Stuart Nixon

Image of adult Grauer’s gorilla courtesy Fauna & Flora International, photo by Stuart Nixon.

The civil war in DRC began in in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide event in Rwanda. Hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed into DRC. Upon arrival, they engaged in deforestation in the eastern region of the country. The inflow of Rwandans refugees also helped set off a conflict that killed millions of people between 1996-2003.

Although the war is over, the militias who participated in it have not disappeared. They control areas in the eastern DRC that are the only habitat for Grauer’s gorillas and, in that territory, they tolerate mining and engage in bushmeat hunting.

The mining, which is done on a small scale and often illegally, is aimed at extracting minerals used in the production of elecronic devices such as cellular phones, laptop computers, and gaming consoles.

Grauer’s gorillas, as well as chimpanzees, are hunted by the militia soldiers to feed the miners, which fund them, and themselves. Although protected by law, the large size of a Grauer’s gorilla means it can provide enough meat to feed multiple humans. Because the animal moves in a troop through its forested habitat, hunters can take multiple gorillas and feed even more humans.

Disarming the militias and imposing legal controls on the small-scale mining within Grauer’s gorilla habitat is a crucial step toward assuring the subspecies’ survival, said the report’s authors.

“Significantly greater efforts must be made for the government to regain control of this region of DRC,” Andrew Plumptre, a wildlife biologist with Wildlife Conservation Society and the lead author of the report, said. “In particular, the government needs to quickly establish Reserve des Gorilles de Punia and the Itombwe Preserve, and reinforce Kahuzi-Biega National Park efforts, which have community support, and to establish strong communication between [Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature] and the DRC military to tackle armed militias that control mining camps in Grauer’s gorilla heartland.”

The report also concluded that agriculture, poaching for body parts, and “socio-economic depression from over a decade of civil war” are contributing to the rapid decline of Grauer’s gorilla and other plant and animal species.

Stuart Nixon, a wildlife biologist at the United Kingdom’s Chester Zoo and a co-author of the report, emphasized that a speedy government response to these stressors is vital.

“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,” he said.

The most recent prior population survey of Gorilla beringei graueri occurred during the mid-1990s. Researchers concluded that a population of about 17,000 individuals remained at that time.

The current conflict is not the first occasion in which Grauer’s gorillas have suffered extensive losses at the hands of humans.

During the 1960s and 1970s many individuals were killed as grassland areas of their range were converted to agriculture and farmers used shotguns provided by the government of Zaire to kill the gorillas.

Gorilla beringei graueri is one of four gorilla subspecies. Like individuals of the other three subspecies, Grauer’s gorillas live in groups. They are thought to organize themselves into harem-like assemblages that include two males. A female matures at about eight years of age, while a male reaches full development after about 12 years.

A full-grown male Grauer’s gorilla can weigh up to 400 pounds.

Both females and males leave the group at maturity, with male Grauer’s gorillas staying together until each can attract females and form new groups. Females join a group or ally themselves with a single adult male.

Also known as the eastern lowland gorilla, Grauer’s gorilla is closely related to the smaller western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) that is endemic to central African forests.

The report’s authors recommend that the status of Gorilla beringei graueri be downgraded from endangered to critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

A species listed as “critically endangered” is just one step, on the IUCN hierarchy of classification, from extinction in the wild.

The report was published by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Flora and Fauna International and the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature.

 

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