Endangered Species Handbook

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Vanishing Species

Human Tragedy and the Looting of Virunga's Treasures: Page 10

     Many Africans have little respect for Gorillas.  Hunters in Cameroon, when asked by researchers why they shoot Gorillas, replied "What's wrong with killing a Gorilla?  They're fierce."  One of the hunters told reporter Michael McRae that he was sure Gorillas were plentiful:  "In Cameroon there are a million Gorillas.  Three weeks ago, I saw sixty in one day.  I shot three and then stopped . . . Why should I feel bad for a Gorilla?  He is just a stupid animal" (McRae 1997).  Education and an alternate source of income might change the opinions of these hunters.  They have the same views Westerners had before research studies and films introduced people to the true nature of these primates. 
     As far as their abundance, there are hardly a million Gorillas in Cameroon, in all of Africa or the world.  Gorillas are declining toward extinction.  Their total population is estimated at well under 100,000 and declining (McRae 1997).  The Lowland Gorilla and Mountain Gorilla are considered separate species by the 2000 IUCN Red List, and both are classified Endangered.  The US Endangered Species Act considers Gorillas to be a single species (Gorilla gorilla) and lists them as EndangeredLikewise, CITES lists Gorillas as a single species on Appendix I.  The species is officially protected from hunting throughout its range, but national legislation is almost never enforced.  The Lowland Gorilla is declining rapidly as a result of logging, killing for the bushmeat trade, and possibly ebola disease.  Adults are often killed to obtain babies, which are traded on the black market to zoos in many countries.  Hundreds of Lowland Gorillas are being slaughtered in Cameroon and other parts of their range, causing immeasurable trauma and cruelty to their close-knit societies, as well as ecological harm.  The Moabi tree, a very important species for its fruits, seed oil, bark and wood, produces enormous seeds that Gorillas disperse (Tuxill 1997).  African Forest Elephants are also crucial to the survival of Moabi trees, spreading their seeds, and they, too, are threatened with extinction.
     The bushmeat trade is wiping out many other species of wildlife in wide areas around African villages.  People set wire snares throughout the forest, into which rare deer, antelope, primates, wild pigs and a variety of animals blunder, struggling for days in great pain until the trappers arrive to kill them with knives.  Even apart from the cruelty and conservation issues, the bushmeat and pet trades are not even lucrative.  People make only a hand-to-mouth living from them, selling rare apes for a few dollars to traders, and other animals for a few cents.  They are killing off their wildlife heritage while remaining in poverty.
      Local people receive almost no benefit from logging, which is permanently devastating the old-growth forests.  Tourists do not want to visit logged-over areas which have a fraction of the wildlife of unlogged forests and, in the case of clearcutting, an ugly, barren landscape.  Trophy hunting, which is increasing in rainforests of Africa because of lobbying by the Safari Club and other organizations, is further reducing the wildlife.  These hunters kill the largest and rarest animals--the prime specimens that should be left to perpetuate the species--and cause wildlife to become frightened and shy. 
     Mountain Gorillas are not killed for the bushmeat trade, but are shot for their body parts.  None exist in captivity.  These endangered gorillas are monitored within Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park by numerous researchers of the Karisoke Research Center, run by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.  They are conducting a variety of different projects studying breeding, genetics and other aspects of their lives.  One researcher noted the extreme devotion the Gorillas have for one another.  Amahoro, meaning Peace, a 14-year-old silverback in the park, became lethargic and could not keep up with the group (Williamson 2001).  Another male became his constant companion, and sometimes two males helped him along.  The International Gorilla Conservation Programme was contacted for veterinary assistance.  A veterinarian arrived and examined Amahoro from a distance, because he was defended by two other males (Williamson 2001).  The next day, he was barely able to move and began coughing; the troop gathered around him, chest-beating in anxiety (Williamson 2001).  After calls to gorilla veterinarians in the United Kingdom and the United States, the veterinarian decided that his problem was an infection in need of antibiotic treatment, which was administered by dart; he recovered fully (Williamson 2001).
     Because of the international importance of the Mountain Gorillas and their precarious status, researchers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began scanning their habitat in August 1994 during a 10-day environmental space satellite mission (Anon. 1994b).  Overlaying the NASA images with data collected from navigation satellites and standard topographical maps is now providing an extremely detailed overview of the Mountain Gorilla's habitat.  The habitat now protected totals only 285 square miles, not a large area for the 658 remaining Mountain Gorillas.
     One wonders what their lives were like thousands of years ago when they roamed over vast, montane forests undisturbed.  They may have shown behavior that has disappeared under these new conditions.  During some parts of the year, they might have frequented the lowlands, feeding on trees or other vegetation that has long ago disappeared, replaced by farmer's fields. It is possible that they are not receiving adequate nutrition from the plants in their reduced habitat.  Their restricted ranges may be causing inbreeding. These Gorillas have suffered great psychological harm from the constant threat of death from hunters, never knowing when they may be confronted and killed.  The loss of many family members to snares and shooting traumatized these sensitive and devoted primates.  

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