09 20/09/2018

Celebrating World Gorilla Day

We are joining in the celebration of World Gorilla Day today by sharing with you some of the amazing projects we’re working on to protect this incredible species!

World Gorilla Day allows people all over the world to come together to celebrate gorillas and also, more importantly, to take action to protect the species in the wild!

Stuart Nixon, Field Programmes Coordinator for Africa, member of the IUCN Specialist Advisory Group for Great Apes and self-confessed “gorilla geek” says:

Gorillas are absolutely awesome - the largest of all primates, gentle vegetarian giants and iconic denizens of the wild Central African rainforest - they are quite literally the greatest of the great apes.
Endemic to Africa, two species and four subspecies of gorillas are currently recognised. The western gorilla consists of two subspecies; the western lowland gorilla is widespread from central Cameroon, south to the border regions of the Republic of Congo and Angola and east to the Congo River; and the Cross River gorilla, isolated to a few small populations in the border regions of south-west Nigeria and Cameroon.
Gorilla knuckle
Gorilla knuckle print found in Gabon

The rarer eastern gorilla also consists of two subspecies; the famous mountain gorilla from the volcanic border region of Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda; and the lesser known Grauer’s (or eastern lowland gorilla) found only in the rugged forests of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

All gorillas are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Illegal hunting for bushmeat, habitat destruction and diseases such as Ebola have tragically pushed the species to the brink of extinction across the continent.

To address the issues gorillas are facing, Chester Zoo is currently working in two different regions of Central Africa to help conserve western and eastern gorillas and their habitats. We are putting a spotlight on those projects today to celebrate World Gorilla Day.

Gabon

We are currently involved in an exciting new pilot project in the coastal lagoon region of southwestern Gabon, an area often referred to as “Africa’s last Eden” and known to be among the priority regions for the conservation of the western lowland gorilla.

Chester Zoo researchers are currently on the ground in Gabon working with the Fernan-Vaz Gorilla Project to learn more about the distribution and status of gorillas. They are using drones to map habitat types in the stunning and unique coastal rainforest and grassland mosaic typical of the region.
Gabon
Coastal rainforest in Gabon
So far the team has carried out more than 300km of foot surveys identifying gorilla populations in several areas, including intimidating swamp forests teeming with forest elephants and dwarf crocodiles.

It’s a tough but incredibly interesting environment for surveying gorillas. The swamps appear to be important refuges for them, particularly in the dry season - one of the field teams was even lucky enough to encounter gorillas in this habitat so the effort of getting into this somewhat hostile environment is worth it!


Gorilla
Adolescent male western lowland gorilla. Photo credit: Simon Childs

With surveys ongoing and with over 30 trail cameras installed across the survey region, the team is hoping to catch video footage of these elusive apes and other species, which may help estimate population sizes. Although gorillas in the region are increasingly threatened by habitat degradation from extractive industries such as selective logging and oil exploration, a small human population, thousands of hectares of intact coastal forest and low levels of illegal hunting suggest there is hope for innovative conservation action in an area which lacks formal protection.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)         

The DRC is the only country in the world to support populations of the Critically Endangered Grauer’s gorillas, the largest and least known of all gorillas and among the world’s 25 most endangered primates.  Over the past two decades, this subspecies of eastern gorilla has undergone a catastrophic decline of 80% due to hunting of illegal bushmeat associated with unregulated mining for minerals including coltan, a substance used in the production of microelectronics such as smartphones, laptops and games consoles.

Totalling at around 3,500 individuals, the survival of Grauer’s gorilla hangs in the balance, depending on an IUCN Action Plan recommending the reinforcement of protection in national parks and greater effort to conserve populations outside of protected areas. Engaging with local communities over the protection of the gorillas and their habitats is crucial if conservation efforts are to be successful.
Grauer's gorilla habitat
Grauer's gorilla habitat

Chester Zoo, with additional funding from Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe, is currently supporting community based explorations for the Grauer’s gorilla, eastern chimpanzees, okapi, Congo peafowl and other rare species. We’ve been searching the highly remote and largely unexplored forests that connect two of DRC’s biggest and most important protected areas, the Maiko National Park and the Reserve de Faune des Okapis.

Since 2016, inhabitants from the Loya and Wandi communities have established a local conservation association, FLOWA, which has managed to confirm the continued presence of gorillas north of the Maiko National Park. We are currently supporting FLOWA communities to conduct a series of explorations aimed at learning more about the gorillas and threats to their survival, as well as building community capacity for wildlife conservation.

Gorilla

Gorilla populations are facing enormous challenges across Central Africa and urgently need everyone’s help. If we lose gorillas we also lose one of our closest living relatives and mightiest ambassadors of the natural world. And where will that leave us?

There is real hope for this gentle giant if we all continue to work together towards a common goal of ensuring they survive into the 21st Century and well beyond! So today, beat your chest, learn how to speak gorilla, eat a huge meal of fruit and veg, sleep in a huge nest made of soft leaves if you like - do whatever you can to celebrate this incredible ape and World Gorilla Day!