Sensitive, shy and smart, gorillas are far from their bloody and battle-scarred movie monster image. In fact, mountain gorillas – one of four species which also includes western lowland, Grauer’s and Cross River: a secluded subspecies unknown to science until 1904 – are our closest living relatives: laughing, mourning and forging strong family bonds, just like us.
These plant-eating primates have come a long way since acquiring critical endangered status in 1989. Over the space of 30 years their numbers have increased from 400 to 1,000. But even though the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) downlisted them to endangered in 2019, the future of these great apes is by no means certain. According to the WWF, only 17 per cent of the world’s gorilla population currently live in protected regions in the two biodiversity hotspots they call home: Rwanda’s tri-border-straddling Virunga Mountains, and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
A Fragile Existence
Habitat loss threatens all wild gorillas. It slowly squeezes them out of their native Afromontane Forest home, which depends on them too for their seed dispersing and tree-trimming skills.
Decades of commercial logging, charcoal production and road building is to blame. Grauer’s Gorillas are believed to occupy less than 15 per cent of their historic range, and according to The Rainforest Trust, just a fifth of this is safeguarded. Endemic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), this critically endangered subspecies is at the mercy of miners prospecting for conflict minerals like tungsten and tin, which we unwittingly handle every time we use our smartphones, cars and even jewellery.
Poaching remains one of the biggest threats to this WWF flagship species. The New England Primate Conservancy estimates 80 per cent of western lowland gorillas (the most populous species) live in areas vulnerable to hunting. As well as getting entangled in snares intended for antelope, they’re slaughtered for bushmeat destined for gourmet vendors in city markets.
Humans have a lot to answer for. Mountain gorillas have endured years of conflict. As well as being caught in the crossfire of armed rebels invading their territory, refugees continue to pour into precious gorilla habitat. Tasked with defending the forest and its inhabitants, some 200 rangers have been killed in the line of duty in Congo’s Virunga (Africa’s oldest national park), blighted by a civil war that started in 1994.
Gorillas aren’t immune to climate change either. Despite drawing water from a varied diet of plants and fruits, a new study in Frontiers in Conservation Science reveals that rising temperatures are driving these biodiversity engineers to seek out ever-dwindling sources of freestanding water.
Another of their nemeses is infectious disease. Twenty years ago, the Ebola outbreak devastated great ape populations, wiping out an estimated one third of global western lowland gorillas. Because they share 98 per cent of our DNA, they’re also at risk of contracting covid. While there haven’t been any reports of wild gorillas being infected, both Atlanta and San Diego zoos reported positive cases, thankfully none of which proved to be fatal.
The Captivity Conundrum
Mountain gorillas may not be able to survive in captivity, but their western lowland cousins can, with approximately 750 living in zoos worldwide. Breeding any animal in captivity, especially a highly intelligent primate like gorillas, raises serious ethical concerns. But like it or not, zoos insist they have played a critical role in the future of this particular endangered primate.
Much like whales, gorillas are a long-lived species that breed agonisingly slowly, with females giving birth to one infant every three to five years. Even seemingly small population declines can take generations of gorillas to rebound. It remains unclear whether western lowland gorillas would have evaded extinction without the intervention of international captive breeding programmes, like the one at Belfast Zoo. These controversial institutions are also vital donors. The non-profit American Association of Zoos and Aquariums contributes more than $5.5 million to gorilla conservation annually.
Gorillas also live around a decade longer in captivity compared to their wild counterparts. At Berlin Zoo, a female called Fatou celebrated her 65th birthday this April – a milestone other zoos worldwide don’t necessarily wish to celebrate. Just like the western world’s ballooning aging population, zoos are feeling the pressure of providing long-term care for greying gorillas. Last November, a proposal by The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) was leaked, exposing their plans to resolve overcrowding by culling male western lowland gorillas.
Meanwhile, 4,700 miles away in Georgia, these charismatic primates have invented a new vocalisation that sounds like a sneezy cough to get zoo keepers’ attention in Atlanta. It prompts uncomfortable questions about how captivity may be influencing their evolutionary path, since this behaviour has never been observed in their wild cousins.
Neighbouring Canada is contemplating banning apes in its zoos altogether with a new federal law backed by Jane Goodall: the English ethologist and activist who pioneered the study of chimpanzees.
Born to Rewild
Another trailblazing conservationist with a penchant for primates is British-born millionaire entrepreneur, Damian Aspinall. Since its inception in 1984, his namesake foundation has rewilded over 70 gorillas in Batéké Plateau, which straddles the Republic of Congo and neighbouring Gabon.
It’s part of a wider rescue, rehabilitation and reintroduction programme coordinated by Tony King. ‘The majority of the released gorillas are wild-born orphans of the illegal bushmeat trade, taken as youngsters to be sold as “pets” while their older family members are killed for meat in front of them,’ he tells The Ethicalist. ‘The orphan gorillas are traumatised by this experience, and many lose the will to live.’
As part of the project’s two-year-long ‘soft’ rewilding process, King explains how the great apes spend their days in the forest under the supervision of project staff, and nights safe in enclosures.
The liberated gorillas are under long term surveillance by experienced local rangers and remote camera traps. The team have monitored Djembo – a rewilded gorilla that’s birthed four offspring in the wild – for almost a quarter of a century.
But rewilding can be a risky undertaking. Eight years ago, five members of a gorilla family that were returned to Gabon, perished within weeks, their deaths still unexplained. They were raised in Howletts Wild Animal Park, Aspinall’s 90-acre breeding sanctuary for rare species in England’s Kent countryside.
Joshi was the latest 14-year-old captive gorilla to be transplanted from Howlett’s to one of the Congo’s ‘rewilding islands,’ where he’s being rehabilitated alongside wild-born orphans. Despite the tragic events of 2014, the programme’s been hailed a resounding success, with over 35 births recorded over 30 years, a 95 per cent annual survival rate among the rewilded apes, and virtual elimination in the trade in live orphan gorillas within Congo and Gabon.
The Human Touch
The reverse of rewilding, habituation is defined as the gradual introduction of a troop of wild gorillas to humans in their natural habitat. It was pioneered by American conservationist and primatologist Dr Dian Fossey, who lived among the mountain gorillas of Virunga for two decades from 1965.
Far from commodifying gorillas, habituation has been a cornerstone of their ongoing conservation. It’s enabled researchers to study gorillas’ behaviour at closer range, treat them for sickness and injuries, and provide daily protection from poachers.
Habituation also underpins environmentally responsible tourist visits. For $1,500, tourists get to observe the primates for four hours (still keeping a safe seven-metre distance), versus a one-hour interaction on a classic gorilla trekking excursion.
It’s not cheap, but as well as generating funds to bankroll park protection and management, it’s created jobs for communities living alongside gorilla habitat, giving locals a reason to protect rather than plunder it. While it can take anywhere from four to eight years to habituate western lowland gorillas, for their mountain brothers and sisters, it averages three years.
Roughly half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas inhabit Bwindi in southwestern Uganda: a tangled web of primeval forests where 19 gorilla families have been habituated since it was gazetted a National Park in the early 1990s.According to WWF – who run a habituation programme in the Congo Basin’s Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area – habituated mountain gorillas have a better survival rate than their unvisited cousins.
It shows that whether it’s donating to conservation charities like the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International or recycling your smartphone, the fate of one of our closest relatives lies very firmly in our hands.