One of our closest evolutionary relatives has just been pushed ever closer to the brink of extinction. The latest review of the world’s species has found that the threats faced by the Eastern gorilla are now so great that the ape is considered “critically endangered”, meaning that currently four out of the six great ape species are close to being wiped off the planet altogether. The main threat to the gorilla’s survival has been due to illegal hunting for their meat and body parts.
The Eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei), which is the largest primate in the world, is actually divided into two subspecies. The more famous mountain gorilla (G. beringei beringei) has been hovering close to extinction for decades, but has been the focus of concerted conservation efforts since Diane Fossey first started studying them in the 1970s, while the lesser known Grauer’s gorilla (G. beringei graueri) has been rapidly suffering a similar fate in relative obscurity. In fact, data shows that the Eastern gorilla has declined by more than 70 percent over the last 20 years alone.
“To see the Eastern gorilla – one of our closest cousins – slide towards extinction is truly distressing,” said the IUCN’s Director General Inger Andersen. “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. Conservation action does work and we have increasing evidence of it. It is our responsibility to enhance our efforts to turn the tide and protect the future of our planet.”
It means that the gorilla will join three other great apes already considered critically endangered. The first is the other species of gorilla, the Western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), which is also split into two subspecies. Despite being far more numerous than its Eastern relative, the Western gorillas have long faced serious threats of deforestation and hunting. Joining the gorillas are the orangutans, with both the Bornean (Pongo pygmaeus) and Sumatran (Pongo abelii) species also finding themselves on the critically endangered list, primarily due to their rainforest being cut down to make way for palm oil plantations.
The IUCN estimate that there are now 800 mountain gorilla surviving in the hills of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – more than has been seen in previous decades but still pitilessly low – and just 3,800 Grauer’s gorilla living in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, down from 20,000 in the 1980s. This means that chimpanzees and bonobos are the only great apes not considered critically endangered, although things aren’t looking particularly great for them either.