Catastrophic collapse of Grauer's gorillas
The results of the report by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Fauna & Flora International (FFI) point to a 77 percent drop in the number of Grauer’s gorillas, from an estimated 17,000 in 1995 to just 3,800 individuals today – all restricted to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The tragic decline in Grauer’s gorillas - also known as eastern lowland gorillas - is due to a combination of illegal hunting around mining sites and settlements, insecurity, and habitat loss. This can be traced back to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, which forced hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee to neighboring DRC. This in turn led to the Congolese civil wars from 1996-2003, which left an estimated 5 million people dead.
But beyond the human tragedy, the war also took its toll on the DRC’s wildlife as a result of insecurity, heightened illegal bushmeat trade and increased deforestation.
“We urge the government of DRC to actively secure and manage this part of the country for both human welfare as well as the survival of this gorilla,” said the study’s lead author, Andrew Plumptre of WCS. “Significantly greater efforts must be made for the government to regain control of this region of DRC.”
The report sought to assess the impact of the civil war on Grauer's gorillas. Field teams conducted widespread surveys, the most intensive ever for this ape, in regions beset by insecurity, searching for ground nests and other signs of this elusive ape. In addition, the authors employed a novel method that allowed them to rigorously assess data collected by local community members and rangers to estimate gorilla abundance.
The survey results confirmed their worst fears: numbers had plummeted.
“The catastrophic decline in Grauer’s gorillas is a clear wake-up call for the Congolese government and the broader conservation community: act now or watch one of our closest relatives slide rapidly towards extinction,” said Jean Claude Muhindo, WWF's DRC Country Director. "At the current loss rate, and without urgent, innovative action, Grauer's gorillas could be gone in the next six years."
One of the primary causes of the decline in Grauer’s gorilla numbers has been the expansion in artisanal mining for coltan and other minerals found in gorilla range. Most of these artisanal mining sites are remote, which means that the miners often turn to local wildlife for food.
Although protected by law, gorillas are highly prized as bushmeat due to their large size and because they are easily tracked and killed as they move in groups on the ground in their small home ranges.
Additionally, baby gorillas are sought after for pets and trafficked internationally. In order to snatch a baby, poachers often kill the entire gorilla family.
“If the Congolese government and the conservation community are unable to protect Grauer´s gorillas from extinction, there is little hope for other, less charismatic species in the Congo Basin,” said Carlos Drews, WWF Director Global Species programme. “A radical protection effort is urgently needed to halt their dramatic decline.”
The report calls for the authorities to make a concerted effort to reverse the decline of Grauer's gorilla.
“What we have found in the field is extremely worrying,” said Radar Nishuli, Chief Park Warden for the Kahuzi Biega National Park and a co-author of the report. “We are urging a strong and targeted response that addresses the following: Train, support and equip ecoguards to tackle poaching more effectively; build intelligence networks, and support the close daily monitoring of gorilla families to ensure their protection; engage customary chiefs who hold traditional power in the region to educate their communities to stop hunting these apes.”
However, restoring law and order is the most critical step – for the region’s people and wildlife.
“We already have a detailed overall strategy to conserve Grauer’s gorillas, what we do not have is sufficient security in the region to put it into practice,” said Muhindo. “The DRC government and the international community must fully commit to reestablishing peace in this part of eastern Congo and restoring law and order to provide an opportunity for local communities to rebuild and hope that the Grauer’s gorillas can recover."
Three areas are now particularly crucial for the gorilla’s survival: Kahuzi-Biega National Park, the adjacent Punia Gorilla Reserve where WCS is supporting local communities to establish the reserve and manage and protect gorillas, and the remote unprotected Usala Forest, which has no support currently. Despite the overall trend, Grauer's gorilla numbers have gone up in the Highlands Sector of Kahuzi Biega, which enjoys protection by the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN).
The Itombwe Nature Reserve also supports highly important outlying populations. WWF has been supporting the development of the reserve by working with ICCN to strengthen law enforcement activities, including anti-poaching efforts, and enhance land-use and management planning.
“WWF calls on the Congolese government to immediately formalize the establishment of the Itombwe Natural Reserve and support its management,” said Muhindo. “This would demonstrate its long-term commitment to conserving the region’s unique wildlife and providing a sustainable future for the struggling communities living along its boundaries."
WWF also conducted an inventory of species in Itombwe in November-December 2015. Preliminary results confirm the alarming downward trend in Grauer’s gorilla numbers highlighted in the report – a trend that justifies raising the status of the Grauer’s gorilla to “critically endangered” on the IUCN list of Threatened Species. This would put all four gorilla subspecies in the critically endangered category.
“WWF believes that the Grauer’s gorilla meets the required criteria to be relisted as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List; this will help galvanize the national and international support – both political and financial – that is necessary to give the species a fighting chance,” said Drews.
WWF is working closely with the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP) and communities to tackle threats and pressures on Grauer's gorillas and their habitat. These include patrols and monitoring for a better understanding of gorilla population demography and movements, in order to inform the best participative strategy.
"As local wisdom goes, 'knowing the problem is part of the solution'," said Muhindo.
Despite the devastating findings, cautious optimism prevails, as the situation is a reminder of the plight of mountain gorillas in the past. Closely related to Grauer's gorillas, mountain gorillas are also found in eastern DRC, as well as Rwanda and Uganda. Their numbers had also collapsed following insecurity and poaching, but intense conservation efforts, supported by state and community participation, have turned the tide: there are 880 mountain gorillas today, compared to only 620 in 1989.
"The successful efforts to conserve the mountain gorilla prove this can be done given peace, community participation and high-level political will," said Bruno Perodeau, WWF's DRC Conservation Director.
The survey was led by experts from WCS and Fauna & Flora International, with field data gathered from across the Grauer’s gorilla range by a group of collaborating organizations. The report, funded by the Arcus Foundation, analyzed data collected with support from Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, KfW (German Development Bank), ICCN, Newman’s Own Foundation, Rainforest Trust, UNESCO, USAID, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and World Bank.