August 6, 2008
A Second Chance for an Endangered Species
For so long now, there has been almost nothing but bad news about the likely fate of gorillas. They have been the victims of deforestation and incessant warfare in Central Africa. They have been hunted for meat. They are susceptible to the Ebola virus. Estimates in the 1980s suggested that there were roughly 100,000 western lowland gorillas - one of four subspecies. Since then, that number was thought to have declined by half.
But a rigorous new census of western lowland gorillas conducted by scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society has found as many as 125,000 of them living in two northern regions of Congo - more than double the number thought to exist elsewhere throughout their range.This news is that rarest of things: a second chance for a critically endangered species. The number itself is the result of an intensive search of inaccessible rain forests and swamps. It also resulted from counting gorilla nests, rather than the secretive creatures themselves.
These gorillas have been protected by their remoteness and by the inaccessibility of their habitat. But remoteness will ultimately be no deterrent to the threats that have decimated them elsewhere. This extraordinary discovery should be a powerful incentive to create new protected areas to help western lowland gorillas the way other national parks in Congo have already done. But it will take more than that. Without careful management of the forest resources that surround protected areas - and strict enforcement - a national park is nothing more than a line on a map.
This news is an utter exception to the fate of primates across the globe. A recent, comprehensive survey, presented at the same conference as the news of the gorilla census, indicates that more than half of primate species face extinction. Scientists are finding new species - 53 since 2000 - but too often finding a new species simply means having a chance to watch it die away.
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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