astern lowland gorillas, also know as Grauer’s gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri), only live in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. They are closely related to humans and are the largest subspecies of gorilla, making them the largest primate in the world. Males can weigh up to 500 pounds. They are a close relative of the better known mountain gorilla, but tend to live at lower elevations and incorporate more fruit into their diet. But very little is known about Grauer’s gorilla ecology or behavior because they have not been well studied in the wild. Grauer’s gorillas mainly live in the forests of the Albertine Rift, which is recognized as one of Africa’s most important areas for biodiversity conservation.
Grauer’s Gorillas are Highly Endangered
Grauer’s gorillas are highly endangered due to widespread habitat destruction, poaching, and threats associated with the ever-growing human population. Over the past decade, insecurity in eastern Congo has amplified these threats, making the situation even more dire.
In the mid-1990s, the overall population of wild Grauer’s gorillas was estimated at around 17,000 individuals. Shortly thereafter, armed conflict broke out in the region, causing hundreds of thousands of human refugees to flee into Congo to escape genocide and civil war in neighboring Rwanda. This chaos also destabilized the already fragile Congolese government, sparking a civil war in that country and a massive humanitarian crisis.
Many refugees and internally displaced people settled in prime gorilla habitat, including national parks and other protected areas. This put enormous pressure on the forests through unchecked harvesting of fuelwood, clearing of forest for farmland, timber extraction, and mining. The high price paid for coltan (columbium and tantalum used in electronics like cell phones) in 1998-2000 made matters worse. Thousands invaded areas like Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to mine for valuable minerals, and professional hunters killed many gorillas to feed the miners and their families. The highland sector of Kahuzi-Biega, once a popular tourist destination, was hit particularly hard. About 50% of its gorilla population was wiped out, including 88% of the gorillas habituated for tourism because they were easy targets.
Unsurprisingly, Grauer’s gorillas have suffered greatly during this troubled time. They have lost over 50% of their habitat since the 1990s. Current estimates for how many Grauer’s gorillas remain are difficult to obtain because the ongoing insecurity makes field surveys difficult, but it is likely that there are less than 10,000 individuals, perhaps even as few as 2,000. This represents a population decline of up to 75% since the 1960s. These last gorillas occur in small, fragmented populations, which further endangers them due to problems with low genetic diversity. Some isolated populations have already gone extinct. Grauer’s gorillas are recognized by IUCN as one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world. They were the only ape to make this list.
Gorilla Orphan Confiscations on the Rise
A symptom of the worsening situation for Grauer’s gorillas is the growing number of orphaned gorillas that have been confiscated by authorities in Congo and Rwanda over the past decade. Adult gorillas are killed for meat, but the infants are often illegally sold and kept as pets. Most infants die without the care of their mothers. It is estimated that for every one gorilla that survives, three or four more have died under similar circumstances. Infant gorillas that manage to survive face an uphill battle. They cannot make it on their own in the wild and previous attempts to introduce them into another wild gorilla group have been unsuccessful.
A Community in Need
The situation for Grauer’s gorillas has worsened in recent decades and these years have brought hardship to the Congolese people as well. Since war broke out in the late 1990s, more than 5 million people have lost their lives in the violence and resulting upheaval, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II. Most of those who died were children, mainly due to malnutrition and disease. Though the conflict officially ended in 2003, violence has persisted in the eastern provinces, where Grauer’s gorillas are found.
Most local communities are now living in extreme poverty without access to basic needs like clean drinking water and latrines. Kasugho and surrounding communities, located near the Congolese border with Uganda, experienced some of the worst atrocities of the war, including a 4-day rampage of looting and sexual violence against women by unpaid government soldiers in 2009. As in many other areas of eastern Congo, the persistence of armed rebel groups nearby has ruined the local economy, since Kasugho residents were repeatedly forced to abandon their farms and businesses to flee violence. Once security improved and villagers returned, many residents no longer had the means to provide for their families. Consequently, many turned to unsustainable and environmentally damaging practices such as shift-and-burn agriculture, cultivating steep hillsides, overharvesting firewood, polluting water sources, and hunting for bushmeat, including gorillas.