Young Gorillas Observed Dismantling Poacher Snares
July 23, 2012

Young Gorillas Observed Dismantling Poacher Snares

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

In what can only be described as an impassioned effort to save their own kind from the hand of poachers, two juvenile mountain gorillas have been observed searching out and dismantling manmade traps and snares in their Rwandan forest home, according to a group studying the majestic creatures.

Conservationists working for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International were stunned when they saw Dukore and Rwema, two brave young mountain gorillas, destroying a trap, similar to ones that snared and killed a member of their family less than a week before. Bush-meat hunters set thousands of traps throughout the forests of Rwanda, hoping to catch antelope and other species, but sometimes they capture apes as well.

In an interview with Mark Prigg at The Daily Mail, Erika Archibald, a spokesperson for the Gorilla Fund, said that John Ndayambaje, a tracker for the group, was conducting his regular rounds when he spotted a snare. As he bent down to dismantle it, a silverback from the group rushed him and made a grunting noise that is considered a warning call. A few moments later the two youngsters Dukore and Rwema rushed up to the snare and began to dismantle it on their own.

Then, seconds after destroying the one trap, Archibald continued, Ndayambaje witnessed the pair, along with a third juvenile named Tetero, move to another and dismantle that one as well, one that he had not noticed beforehand. He stood there in amazement.

“We have quite a long record of seeing silverbacks dismantle snares,” Archibald told Prigg. “But we had never seen it passed on to youngsters like that.”

And the youngsters moved “with such speed and purpose and such clarity ... knowing,” she added.

“This is absolutely the first time that we've seen juveniles doing that ... I don't know of any other reports in the world of juveniles destroying snares,” Veronica Vecellio, gorilla program coordinator at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund's Karisoke Research Center, told National Geographic.

Every day trackers from the Karisoke center scour the forest for snares, dismantling any they find in order to protect the endangered mountain gorillas, which the International Fund for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says face "a very high risk of extinction in the wild."

Adults generally have enough strength to free themselves from the snares, but juveniles usually do not, and often die as a result of snare-related wounds. Such was the case of an ensnared infant, Ngwino, found too late by Karisoke workers last week. The infant´s shoulder was dislocated during an escape attempt, and gangrene had set in after the ropes cut deep into her leg.

A snare consists of a noose tied to a branch or a bamboo stalk. The rope is pulled downward, bending the branch, and a rock or bent stick is used to hold the noose to the ground, keeping the branch tight. Then vegetation is placed over the noose to camouflage it. When an animal budges the rock or stick, the branch swings upward and the noose closes around the prey, usually the leg, and, depending on the weight of the animal, is hoisted up into the air.

Vecellio said the speed with which everything happened leads her to believe this wasn´t the first time the juveniles had dismantled a trap.

“They were very confident,” she said. “They saw what they had to do, they did it, and then they left.”

Since gorillas in the Kuryama group have been snared before, Vecellio said it is likely that the juveniles know these snares are dangerous. “That´s why they destroyed them.”

“Chimpanzees are always quoted as being the tool users, but I think, when the situation provides itself, gorillas are quite ingenious” too, said veterinarian Mike Cranfield, executive director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.

He speculated that the gorillas may have learned how to destroy the traps by watching the Karisoke trackers. “If we could get more of them doing it, it would be great,” he joked.

But Vecellio said it would go against Karisoke center policies and ethos to actively instruct the apes. “We try as much as we can to not interfere with the gorillas. We don't want to affect their natural behavior.”

Pictures of the incident have gone viral and numerous fans on the Fund´s Facebook page have shared comments cheering for the young silverbacks. Archibald said capturing the interaction was “so touching that I felt everybody with any brains would be touched.”