News: Congo’s Surprise Lowland Gorillas Spur Conservation Efforts

Text by Mindy Zacharjasz

The Republic of the Congo just gained a few more residents: An extensive Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) census found 125,000 western lowland gorillas in the area—that’s more than double the number of the critically endangered subspecies than scientists previously thought existed on Earth.

"These figures show that northern Republic of Congo contains the mother lode of gorillas," says Steven E. Sanderson, president and CEO of WCS.  "It shows that conservation in the Republic of Congo is working."

Did these 125,000 gorillas just suddenly appear?  Not quite. Scientists knew there were gorillas, but they had no idea there were so many. The remote northern regions of Republic of Congo has not always been the most hospitable place for researchers, but thanks to new roads (a biproduct of the fledgling logging industry) and innovative survey methods, they were finally able to get a full look. Researchers spent two years combing through rain forests and isolated swamps counting the gorilla “nests” constructed from leaves and branches each night for sleeping. (The researchers themselves often pitched their own tents in the trees at night.)

These counts yield much more accurate results than the 1980s global estimate of 100,000 western lowlands, says James Deutsch, director of the WCS Africa Program. Since then, scientists had believed the population had halved due to hunting and disease. The good news for the struggling primate population was a welcomed surprise for scientists, who checked and rechecked the numbers.

Now that we know about these gorillas, the conservation goals are threefold. Some 73,000 live in the Ntokou-Pikounda region, currently unprotected but the government of Congo has committed to making it a national park. That is goal number one, says Deustch, and the hope is that this development will speed up the process. Another 52,000 are in the Ndoki-Likouala landscape, which includes the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, created two years ago with the help of WCS. Those living in unprotected areas are at greater risk of poaching for bush meat and all are at risk for ebola, which has wiped out most gorillas in nearby Odzala National Park and Gabon.