IUCN warns at Hawaii conservation meeting that four of six great ape species are at high risk of extinction
The International Union for Conservation of Nature added the Eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla berengei) to its list of critically endangered species Sunday, raising the number of great ape species that are on very cusp of extinction to four.
The three other critically endangered species of great apes are the Western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), and Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii).
There are six species of great apes. The other two species – the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and the bonobo (Pan paniscus) – are endangered.
G. berengei includes two subspecies. One of them, Grauer’s gorilla (G.b. graueri), has experienced a decline in population of nearly 80 percent since 1994. There are about 3,800 individuals left. The other, the Mountain gorilla (G.b. beringei), has a population of about 880 individuals.
“To see the Eastern gorilla – one of our closest cousins – slide towards extinction is truly distressing,” Inger Anderson, IUCN’s director general, said in a statement. “We live in a time of tremendous change and each IUCN Red List update makes us realize just how quickly the global extinction crisis is escalating.”
The great apes are man’s closest relatives in the natural world.
Chimpanzees and bonobos share about 98.8 percent of the human genome. Gorilla genes are about 98.4 percent identical to humans, while the orangutan genome is about 97 percent identical to man.
The IUCN announcement came at its annual conservation congress, a gathering of political leaders, conservationists, and others, in Honolulu, Hawaii.
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.”
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.
COMMENTARY: For World Wildlife Day, ask your U.S. senators to support the END Wildlife Trafficking Act
Today is World Wildlife Day. While it is certainly a day to revel in the amazing variety of animals that walk, swim, and fly on Earth, it also a day to ponder the growing threat to the survival of many of those species.
The list of iconic animals who are at risk of extinction because of humanity’s actions is shockingly long. There are too many species to mention here, but the roster of the imperiled includes all the great apes except for us, nearly all the big cats, elephants, rhinos, and sharks.
This video makes clear how poaching, in particular, threatens African elephants:
As a way of celebrating this day, the author of this blog suggests that you urge your U.S. senators to support the proposed Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt (END) Wildlife Trafficking Act. The bill takes direct aim at poaching, which is the leading hazard to many of the wildlife species at risk of extinction as well as a danger to national security because it helps to finance terrorism.
The bill would accomplish these objectives:
- Require the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking to work with the governments of countries affected by wildlife poaching and trafficking on an analysis of the threats each country faces, and to put together a plan with recommendations on how to address these threats;
- Authorize a variety of assistance programs available to the Secretary of State, the USAID Administrator, and other relevant agency heads to address poaching and wildlife trafficking problems, including strengthening training for law enforcement and wildlife rangers in impacted countries, supporting capacity for investigations and border inspections, strategies to encourage community-based conservation programs, and others;
- Promote bilateral agreements and international cooperation to combat wildlife trafficking and reduce demand for illegally traded wildlife and wildlife products; and
- Include rigorous reporting requirements to monitor progress made on stemming the tide of poaching and trafficking in countries of concern, and to ensure the best use of taxpayer dollars.
S. 2385 must be reported favorably by the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee before it can receive a vote from all senators. No committee hearing on the bill has been scheduled. If approved by the Senate, the legislation would then have to be adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives before being sent to the President for his approval.
The proposed END Wildlife Trafficking Act is supported by the African Wildlife Foundation, the Humane Society of the United States, TRAFFIC, Tsavo Conservation Group, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund.
A similar bill, the proposed Global Anti-Poaching Act, was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last November.