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Big Trouble for a Great Ape

The population of Grauer’s gorillas has been falling fast, putting these creatures in danger of extinction.

By Jennifer Marino Walters

Standing more than 5 feet tall and weighing in at about 400 pounds, the Grauer’s gorilla is the world’s largest primate (the category of mammals that includes humans, apes, and monkeys). But this great ape may soon become extinct. According to a recent report by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other groups, the number of Grauer’s gorillas has dropped from about 17,000 in 1995 to only about 3,800 today. That’s a decrease of about 77 percent.

Grauer’s gorillas—also known as eastern lowland gorillas—live only in the forests of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country in Africa. In recent years, habitat loss, civil war, and illegal hunting there have taken a huge toll on the gorillas.

“The amount of the decline was a shock—much worse than we had predicted,” says Andrew Plumptre, a WCS scientist and co-author of the report.

If the decline continues at the same rate, conservationists fear that Grauer’s gorillas could disappear from the wild forever in the next 5 to 10 years.

GORILLAS IN DANGER

Grauer’s gorillas have lost much of their habitat as people have cleared forests to make room for farms and livestock. They’ve faced other serious threats as well. From 1996 until 2003, a civil war raged in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The war killed 5 million people and had devastating consequences for wildlife, especially Grauer’s gorillas. To help fund the fighting, militias (armed groups) set up mines to unearth copper and other resources in remote areas. With little food available, the miners began to illegally hunt and eat local wildlife. Grauer’s gorillas were prized targets because of their large size.

Though the fighting has mostly stopped, nearly 70 armed groups remain in the country. Mining operations continue to grow, and many Grauer’s gorillas are still killed for their meat.

HELP’S ON THE WAY

Since the 1980s, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed the Grauer’s gorilla as an endangered species. Conservationists are now pushing for the animal’s status to be changed to “critically endangered”—only one step above extinct. This change would bring more support and funding to help save the Grauer’s gorilla.

Some people are already working to help the species make a comeback. Officials at Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have boosted efforts to protect gorillas inside the park. As a result, a group of Grauer’s gorillas there has increased in number from 132 in the year 2000 to 200 today. And the WCS is working to create two new protected areas that would safeguard 60 percent of the gorillas’ remaining habitat. Many experts hope that the government will also take steps to help the gorillas, like ending illegal mining.

Jefferson Hall, a scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute who also co-authored the report, is optimistic. “There is still hope to save these animals and the ecosystems they represent,” he says.

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