Gorillas are our second closest relatives, after chimpanzees. We share about 98 per cent of our DNA with gorillas, after our common ancestors diverged about six million years ago.
A number of issues, most of them human-made, however, are putting the future of mountain gorillas, in particular, at risk and only our intentional conservation efforts will move them from endangered species to a more secure place on our planet’s agenda.
Movies like "King Kong," "Congo" and "Tarzan" have portrayed gorillas as aggressive, feared creatures when in fact they are gentle, friendly and vulnerable. The chest-pounding that we imagine when thinking of gorillas is only displayed when they are violently disturbed or feel that their children are at risk.
Two of my own children participated in a guided tour (the only kind possible) of the mountain gorillas in Rwanda two years ago and had an overwhelmingly positive experience.
Mountain gorillas number only about 600 at this time, living in two equal populations near to one another. There are still thousands of lowland gorillas which are the ones often seen is our zoos, but they are also victims of the challenges facing the mountain variety.
There is no question that the Rwandan civil war and genocide of the mid-1990s seriously and negatively affected mountain gorilla populations as their habitat was overrun by refugees and armed forces.
Direct deaths weren’t necessarily the greatest result of this situation (there were some due to landmines and outright slaughter), but certainly there was a huge loss of tourism revenue that had been used for their protection.
Many attest to the fact that conservation officers stayed at their posts even in the most dangerous military situations to protect their gorilla charges. While gorillas have been a target of trophy hunters and zookeepers for the past century and more, this is not seen as a major cause of the decline in numbers.
Loss of natural habitat is an issue that will only grow into the future. Both the loss of arable land in Africa due to poor agricultural techniques and the expansion of agriculture to make up for lost land and the effects of climate change are encroaching on nature and causing forest land to dwindle. The continuous and widening harvesting of firewood for home use is also a factor as women scour the natural landscape to cook food and heat water.
Increased logging for commercial construction of housing has also put great pressure on forested lands. New roads are being built into these fragile areas, clearing is taking place, and trucks and workers are moving in.
Coincidentally, logging and the consumption of bush meat connect, in that logging employees are the main consumers and logging trucks are the main transporters.
Poaching and hunting endangered species is increasing as Africans lose their usual stores of food to export agriculture and high prices. People unable to access their regular diets are forced to eat bush meat, often monkey and ape, which is both dangerous for disease and illegal as well.
Disease has also decimated some gorilla communities, including due to ailments that they share with humans. Ebola virus over the past 20 years has particularly affected lowland gorilla populations in Congo. Other disease factors include measles, scabies and the flu. Tourism, which in some ways is a boon to the gorilla conservation movement as it brings in dollars to countries that are not well off so that they can continue their conservation programs, is also a leading cause of spreading human disease to these animals.
Many efforts are now underway to conserve the mountain gorilla population, including one where the three key countries involved —Rwanda, Congo and Uganda — are working on a 10-year agreement to share this responsibility. This initiative is being underwritten by European governments and charities.
While some parts of the Eastern Congo are still controlled by rebel fighters, making this program less tenable in those areas, generally speaking, a concerted effort is being made to regulate tourism and reduce poaching, illegal logging and cultivation.
The initiative to protect the mountain gorilla is seen by some as a success, yet anything negative is possible in an uncertain political environment.
The mountain gorilla and its more numerous lowland relatives are just one example of a long list of species on our planet that are in need of our respect and protection. There is much that they can teach us about our own evolution and about living in harmony with our environment.
» Zack Gross works for the Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations active in our province.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 22, 2012