They are the largest primate in the world, and yet not many people have heard of Grauer’s gorilla. Confined to a war-ravaged corner of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), unless something is done, and quickly, the fate of the ape does not look good. Once estimated at 17,000 individuals, their numbers have since dropped by a staggering 77 percent.
The tipping point for the gorillas is thought to have been the horrific Rwandan genocide of 1994 that occurred just over the border. As a result, the hundreds of thousands of refugees that fled the slaughter into the DRC sparked a civil war in 1996. “The crash in the gorilla population is a consequence of the human tragedy that has played out in eastern DRC,” says Jefferson Hall, who co-authored the new report on the species, in a statement. “Armed factions terrorize innocent people and divide up the spoils of war with absolutely no concern for the victims or the environment.”
There are thought to be only 3,800 Grauer’s gorillas left, down from 17,000 recorded in 1995/1996. A. Plumptre/WCS
Officially there are two species of gorilla, the eastern and the western. These are further broken down into two subspecies each, with the latter containing the western lowland gorilla and the Cross River gorilla, and the former being split into the mountain gorilla and the Grauer’s gorilla. While obviously separated by geography, with the Congo basin keeping the two species apart, they are also subtlety different in their looks. The western subspecies tend to be smaller, have shorter hair, and often sport ginger crowns, whereas the eastern variety are normally larger, have shaggier fur and can have a bluish tinge.
Of these, the Grauer’s subspecies is the largest of the four, with males tipping the scale at just over 180 kilograms (400 pounds). Unlike their alpine cousins, the Grauer’s gorillas tend to prefer the lowland rainforests, and exist solely in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. They feed predominately on vegetation and plant matter, including fruits, leaves, and bark, occasionally snacking on the odd insect, such as ants. Currently, they are the only subspecies classed as endangered, with the other three falling into the critically endangered box. But that is something that the researchers of the new study want to change.
Gorillas have been pushed out of their habitat by deforestation as well as hunted for their meat. S. Nixon
With such a rapid decline of almost 80 percent over two decades, only 3,800 of the gorillas are thought to survive. The researchers argue that because of this, they should be relisted along with the other subspecies as critically endangered as they now fit the criteria. Not only that, but they say that the only way to save the species is to solve the armed conflict still ravaging the area, as the fate of the two are inextricably linked.
“The activity of armed militias controlling mining camps in the Grauer's gorilla heartland is likely to eliminate the Grauer's gorilla entirely,” explained Andrew Plumptre, the lead author of the new report. “Conservationists are pushing for the establishment of the Reserve des Gorilles de Punia and the Itombwe Reserve, which has strong community support, along with the reinforcement of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, arguing that this would make a huge difference for the gorillas.”