August 6, 2008
125,000 Gorillas Found Deep in African Forest
By Andrew C. Revkin
A grueling survey of vast tracts of forest and swamp in the northern Congo Republic has revealed the presence of more than 125,000 western lowland gorillas, a rare example of abundance in a world of rapidly vanishing primate populations.
As recently as last year, this subspecies of the world's largest primate was listed as critically endangered by international wildlife organizations because known populations - estimated at less than 100,000 in the 1980s - had been devastated by hunting and outbreaks of Ebola virus. The three other subspecies are critically endangered or endangered.
The survey was conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society and local researchers in largely unstudied terrain. Steven Sanderson, the president of the society, marveled at the scope of what the survey revealed. "The message from our community is so often one of despair," he said. "While we don't want to relax our concern, it's just great to discover that these animals are doing well."
The society is to release its findings on Tuesday at a meeting of the International Primatological Society in Edinburgh. Conservation society scientists said the continuing threat of Ebola precluded a change in the gorilla's status. But the discovery was mainly stirring excitement.
"This is the light of hope you look for," said Richard Ruggerio, a conservation biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But he cautioned that the large gorilla populations in the two studied tracts, which cover 47,000 square kilometers, or 18,000 square miles, should not lead to complacency. "It's a different kind of alarm call, an opportunity that is increasingly rare on this planet - to do something before there's a crisis," he said. A separate global update on primates was being issued Tuesday at the Edinburgh meeting, showing that, with a few exceptions, forest destruction and hunting for meat, pets and Chinese medicinal products are imperiling primates, from Congo Republic to Cambodia.
In Vietnam and Cambodia, 90 percent of primates - including gibbons, leaf monkeys and langurs - are considered at risk, said scientists affiliated with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which issued the update with Conservation International.
"What is happening in Southeast Asia is terrifying," said Jean- Christophe Vie, deputy chief of the group's species program. "To have a group of animals under such a high level of threat is, quite frankly, unlike anything we have recorded among any other group."
The lowland gorillas discovered in the Congo Republic survey are secure for now, but pressures are growing on wildlife in central Africa as international demand builds for tropical hardwood and other resources. The government of Congo Republic has granted national park status to one of the studied regions, Ntokou- Pikounda, which is estimated to hold 73,000 gorillas. But there is little money for staff or operations, conservation society officials said.
Over all, Sanderson said, the situation for the surveyed gorillas in Congo Republic appears promising. Along with the park plans, some logging companies that sell lumber certified as responsibly harvested are working with the conservation society and the government to adjust practices in ways that preserve habitat and limit meat hunting.
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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