Wild western lowland gorillas have been pictured in central Rio Muni, Equatorial Guinea, for the first time in more than a decade in a project spearheaded by Bristol Zoological Society.
Images caught by camera traps show curious young gorillas deep in their jungle home.
The photos were taken by one of a series of cameras set up by conservationists from Bristol Zoological Society and the University of West of England (UWE Bristol).
Dr Gráinne McCabe, Head of Conservation and Field Science at Bristol Zoological Society, is one of the conservationists leading the project. She said: “We were so excited when we saw the images. One of our assistants let out a shout when he opened the first photo of the gorilla.
“While local people had reported seeing the animals around the villages from time to time, we hadn’t been able to catch sight of one yet, suggesting their numbers in the park might be low, and researchers haven’t been working in this area for over 10 years.
“To see these animals in real life would be magical, but this is the next best thing, and so this is truly special – certainly a career highlight.”
Dr McCabe said it was particularly exciting to see young gorillas, estimated to be about four years old, as this shows a new generation has been born and appears to be thriving.
She said: “It is a huge milestone for the project as it confirms their existence here, despite heavy hunting pressure in this forest.”
The gorilla population in Monte Alén National Park in Equatorial New Guinea is very important as this species is listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
In 2005, it was estimated that around 2,000 western lowland gorillas lived in this area. Current numbers are unknown.
Dr McCabe said: “Levels of poaching in the park are very high and so we have always been very concerned that they are at risk of being hunted into extinction in this area.”
She said other primates, including mandrills and various species of smaller-bodied monkey, are heavily hunted in the area for bush meat, which is a delicacy in the cities of Central Africa.
She said the photographs were crucial in helping to establish a conservation plan for the park. Dr McCabe said: “We will be able to work alongside the national park to find areas where patrols should be targeted to prevent poaching for example. Eventually, if poaching can be controlled, we may be able to help bring back eco-tourism to the area.”
Bristol Zoological Society’s field team, led by post-doctoral research associate Dr Patrick McLaughlin, is currently in Equatorial Guinea putting up more cameras. By Easter there will be 30 in place across the national park range.
Dr David Fernández, a primate behavioural ecologist and conservation biologist at UWE Bristol, co-leads the project. He said: “We will use the data from these to establish population size and location across the park, along with surveys, to investigate for signs of poaching, by the presence of shotgun shells for example. We will use this information to establish how best we can work with the national park authorities in the area.”
The dwindling population of wild western lowland gorillas is reflected across five other African countries, including Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo and Gabon.
The exact number of animals left is not known because they inhabit some of the densest and remote rainforests in Africa; however, recent estimates have shown that as few as 360,000 remain across their range. In addition, scientists predict gorilla numbers have declined by more than 60 per cent over the last 20 to 25 years.
Bristol Zoological Society and UWE Bristol are working with The Biodiversity Initiative – a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) focused on creating an inventory of the wildlife of Equatorial Guinea.
The Society has been focused on the conservation of apes in Central Africa since 2003. Its initial project centred on the creation of a hunting zone in the buffer region around the Dja Biosphere Reserve in southern Cameroon, another important gorilla habitat.
In addition to the Society’s work in Dja, it has also provided long-term support to Ape Action Africa – a primate sanctuary based at Mefou National Park, Yaoundé, Cameroon.
Bristol Zoological Society also participates in a conservation breeding programme for western lowland gorillas, which is vitally important to the survival of this critically endangered species. A family group of seven western lowland gorillas live at Bristol Zoo Gardens, and two baby gorillas have been born there since 2016.
They are classified as Critically Endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List and the gorillas at Bristol Zoo are part of a European breeding programme to safeguard these iconic animals.
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