Habituating great apes does not come without its risks. While the aim is to allow humans to observe the animals in their own environment, it does open the apes up to dangers that they would not normally be exposed to. One of these is illnesses normally associated with humans that can easily transfer, while another is that of poachers who may find it easier to get within range of the apes.
Unfortunately, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has reported that the latter has occurred to a male gorilla habituated by research teams since 2005 in the Central African Republic (CAR). The young male, known as a blackback, was part of a troop called the Mayele group, which live in the Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas. At 12 years old, Sosa was on the verge of leaving the group and setting out on his own in a bid to find his own females and start his own harem. Indeed, the researchers note that he had already started to spend more time on the periphery of the 10-strong group before his life was cut short this week.
“This is the first killing of a habituated western lowland gorilla by poachers since our programme started here 18 years ago,” says 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.”
Hundreds of villagers from the local community gathered to mourn the death of Sosa as he was carried from the forest. © Janika Wendefeuer / WWF
The sad news is no doubt devastating for the researchers and communities who have spent close to two decades working on the project, which not only contributes to our understanding of the species, but also brings in much needed tourism to the region as visitors come to see the beautiful apes. It is thought that the poachers, two of whom have been arrested, were not targeting the ape, but stumbled upon him when out hunting other game. But as the community comes to terms with the death, the lead researcher of the WWF Africa Great Apes Programme puts things into perspective.
“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,” explains David Greer, who has spent nine years working in Dzanga Sangha.
The death of the gorilla should not stop habituation of the apes from continuing, either. While the loss is obviously great, the overall benefit of such programs is much bigger. By fully understanding the behavior and ecology of these misunderstood creatures, conservationists can better form management plans and thus protection for their forest. The presence of a large organization such as WWF is also one of the best securities that the apes, and subsequently all the other animals that share the forest, can have.