An injured gorilla and a vulnerable ecosystem



Posted on 31 January 2012  | 
A three-year-old gorilla suffered an injury five days ago. I decided to accompany WWF´s African Great Ape Leader, David Greer, to look at its condition. After a bumpy, hour long drive through part of Central African Republic's Dzanga Sangha protected area, we arrived at the gorilla habituation camp. The BaAka trackers were expecting us. This is probably to best place on Earth for visitors to see Western lowland gorillas in the wild.

A heartbreaking sight

Our guide followed a subtle trail of scratches in the leaf cover and broken twigs, made by one of his colleagues earlier in the day as he followed Mayele, the massive silverback and leader of the gorilla group. And there it was: the injured gorilla, lying on the forest floor on his belly. We sat down quietly at a prudent distance to observe. A few minutes later he turned around, this time lying on its back and looking at the canopy. The silverback and some of the females were not far from him, also resting.

It was only half an hour later, when the group started to move, that we realized that the young gorilla was limping severely. He was dragging his right leg behind him, but was able to keep up with the group. It is hard to say what happened and what his chances of recovery are. One of the trackers suggested that he may have fallen out of a tree. A dislocated hip perhaps, thought Greer, who speaks the local Sango language fluently. For him, having known these animals for years, this sight was heartbreaking.

A labor of love

Greer has dedicated his life to the study and conservation of chimpanzees and gorillas in Africa. His wife, Chloe Cipoletta, started the first habituation of lowland gorillas for tourism in Central Africa at this site. In the thick undergrowth of this forest, it is almost impossible to get a glimpse of a wild gorilla. These are shy animals. But they become curious too. That is when eventually the first interactions happen.

The long and arduous process of habituating gorillas to humans has paid off in Dzanga Sangha, but not necessarily elsewhere. In 2005, an epidemic of the Ebola virus hit several populations of lowland gorillas severely, including an estimated 5,000 or more individuals in the Northern part of the Republic of Congo. Two groups of lowland gorillas habituated by pioneer researcher, Magadalena Bermejo were also hit. It was major blow.

The main threats to these critically endangered animals are undoubtedly hunting and diseases, Greer explained. Interestingly, the deadly Ebola virus can be transmitted from great apes to humans, for example if a dead ape is found and eaten. There are hundreds of human casualties of the Ebola virus, but it does not seem to be a deterrent to continue killing gorillas for their meat.

Natural systems out of balance

The balance between healthy populations of animals and hunting for food has been disturbed in most Central African forests. The traditional consumption of wild meat by local people, like the BaAka, has been sustainable for millennia. However, the colonization of forests for logging and mining, new networks of roads, and growing human settlements in the Congo Basin have put additional pressure on natural resources.

Now, there is a vast demand for bushmeat. Most of the hunting is no longer for personal consumption, but to generate cash and to satisfy commercial demand in towns. The bushmeat trade has wiped out the wildlife from many areas of Central Africa. Organized poaching gangs move between countries and take advantage of weaknesses in law enforcement.

Empty forests syndrome

The forest in such places is green and lush, but empty and silent. The ecoguards of Dzanga Sangha protected area collected more than 50,000 illegal hunting snares in 2011 during their patrols. WWF and the park authorities are working to restore the balance, so that the BaAka continue to access the forest for protein in a sustainable way, for the benefit of the generations to come.

Gorillas represent the need to restore balance in the most precious ecosystems of the Congo Basin. They draw attention to the issues. And they draw attention to some of the awesome natural wonders that Greer and I would like to see in abundance and forever.

The injured gorilla lying, again, in front of us, is a symbol for a vulnerable environment. But the hopeful look in his eyes and the attention it receives from its fellow gorillas is indicative of, perhaps, a positive outcome for him and for the healing of the Congo Basin as a whole.

Read the next dispatch here: Forest elephants, scientists and chance

Read the previous dispatch: Tracking elephants with the BaAka people

Silverback Mayele is the head of one of the very few lowland gorilla groups that can be visited by tourists in the world.
© WWF / Carlos Drews Enlarge
The thick undergrowth is a plentiful source of food for lowland gorillas.
© WWF / Carlos Drews Enlarge
David Greer is WWF´s African Great Apes Leader and has over 18 years of experience in chimpanzee and gorilla ecology and conservation.
© WWF / Carlos Drews Enlarge

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