Poachers kill habituated gorilla in CAR
12-year-old Sosa of the Mayele group was shot and killed by poachers last Friday, while WWF staff were monitoring the group. Two suspected poachers have been arrested but it is still unclear whether they were specifically targeting the gorillas or unintentionally stumbled across Sosa while illegally hunting for other bushmeat and shot him when he tried to defend his group.
“This is the first killing of a habituated western lowland gorilla by poachers since our programme started here 18 years ago,” said Jean Bernard Yarissem, WWF’s CAR Country Director. “This is a stark reminder of how difficult and dangerous conservation work in CAR can be, and we are calling on the authorities to thoroughly and swiftly investigate this case and hand down appropriate sentences to the perpetrators.”
Mayele is one of three fully habituated groups in Dzanga Sangha. All groups are monitored daily for research and are one of the area’s main tourist attractions.
Sosa was the son of Mayele, the group’s silverback, and was one of two blackbacks in the 10-member group. His habituation started in 2005 and researchers, including current site manager Terence Fuh Neba, describe him as one the most habituated individuals and an interesting character, always very curious and keen to play with his siblings.
He had already started showing signs of maturity and increasing confidence, and was spending longer periods at the periphery of the group and away from the other individuals – signs that he was inching towards leaving the group and starting his own family.
“Having worked in Dzanga Sangha for almost 9 years, I am incredibly moved by the killing of Sosa, whom I spent time with on a number of occasions,” said David Greer, WWF’s Africa Great Ape Programme leader. “But while we mourn the death of this popular blackback, we must remember that wild, unhabituated gorillas are being killed at a rapid, unsustainable rate across the Congo basin and urgently need enhanced protection.”
Although the most numerous and geographically widespread gorilla species, western lowland gorillas are still listed as critically endangered on the IUCN red list. Poaching remains the most serious threat to the species – along with habitat loss and disease.
The great apes have been considerably more secure within Dzanga Sangha, where poaching levels have been relatively low in recent years. A 2015 WWF survey found that Dzanga Sangha holds an estimated 2,215 gorillas, alongside 500 chimpanzees and 710 elephants.
One of the reasons for the greater security has been the success of WWF’s gorilla habituation programme, which is supported by local communities and authorities. Over the years it has employed over 100 trackers and ecoguards, including the indigenous BaAka, whose vast knowledge of the forest and wildlife has been invaluable. Communities also receive 40 percent of tourism fees, which are used to fund local development projects.
And it was the locals who gathered in huge numbers - by some accounts over a thousand people - when Sosa's body was brought out of the forest to the park headquarters. They came to express their grief and demand justice for his death.
“Sosa’s killing will not endanger this critical project because it has the firm backing of local communities and authorities, who understand the benefits of protecting their gorillas and other wildlife resources,” said Yarissem. “We will overcome this setback and do everything we can to protect Mayele’s group and the region’s remaining gorillas.”