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article imageThese remarkable primates are being wiped out by war in the Congo

By Megan Hamilton     Apr 6, 2016 in Environment
Decades of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo have decimated populations of the world's largest primate — the eastern lowland gorilla, also known as Grauer's gorilla.
In 1998, researchers estimated 17,000 of these magnificent apes lived in this region's forests, but their numbers have plunged by 77 percent, The Washington Post reports.
Shockingly, there are now less than 3,800 of these gorillas still surviving in the wild, according to a report published by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Fauna and Flora International and the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature.
As war continues to rage in the DRC, mining camps have been established to fund militias, and that, along with subsistence hunting and hunting for bushmeat to feed the miners has severely impacted gorilla numbers, the report found.
The recent conflicts in the country stem from the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Refugees fled into the eastern DRC, and Congolese civil wars killed an estimated five million people.
"The crash in the gorilla population is a consequence of the human tragedy that has played out in the eastern DRC," said report co-author Jefferson Hall, a staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, in a statement. "Armed factions terrorize innocent people and divide up the spoils of war with absolutely no concern for the victims or the environment."
Wildlife researchers, game wardens, and park rangers have either fled the forests or were removed at gunpoint, Scientific American reports. This left civilian populations to make do however they could, and along with hunting, the forest has been plundered for firewood, charcoal, and space for crops to augment survival. At least 91 percent of the people in the region practice subsistence agriculture, and that means huge swaths of gorilla habitat has been turned into farms. Additionally, 96 percent of the locals use firewood as their main source of energy for warmth and cooking.
Over the last 50 years, the range of the eastern lowland gorilla has shrunk from 8,100 square miles — an area about the size of Massachusetts — to about 4,600 square miles today, The World Wildlife Fund reports. There's a good chance these gorillas may only occupy 13 percent of their historical range.
With such tumult in the region it has been impossible to establish an accurate account of the animals, and gorillas are even vulnerable to poaching in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, which contains the largest population of these protected apes. Rebels and poachers have also invaded here and illegal mines have been set up. Park staff, with the assistance of WWF and other organizations are reestablishing control over the park.
There are two gorilla species, the WWF reports — the western gorilla and the eastern gorilla. The western gorilla is divided into two subspecies — the western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and the Cross river gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli). And the eastern gorilla is also divided into two subspecies--the mountain gorilla (Gorilla berengei berengei) and the eastern lowland or Grauer's gorilla (Gorilla berengei graueri).
The IUCN Red List of Endangered Species currently categorizes the eastern lowland gorilla as Endangered, but Fauna and Flora, along with the organizations mentioned above want to change that.
The authors of the report say their findings show the perilous position these great apes are in, and this justifies re-categorizing them as Critically Endangered in order to place emphasis on the need to act now to prevent an additional decline in their numbers. All four gorilla subspecies would be placed in the Critically Endangered category.
"Grauer's gorilla is found only in the eastern Congo – one of the richest areas on our planet for vertebrate diversity. As one of our closest living relatives, we have a duty to protect this gorilla from extinction," said study co-author Stuart Nixon, of Fauna and Flora International. "Unless greater investment and effort is made, we face the very real threat that this incredible primate will disappear from many parts of its range in the next five years. It's vital that we act fast."
Preventing their numbers from dwindling further will take a good deal of work, conservationists say, according to The Washington Post.
The report calls for regulating mining sites and disarming miners. It also calls for increasing security where the gorillas live; adding protected areas and providing more support for protected lands already existing, and recommends public education campaigns and focusing on providing residents with viable alternatives to mining through economic development.
The largest of all the primates, eastern lowland gorillas weigh 450 to 500 lbs and stand between five and six feet tall, A-Z Animals reports.
As omnivores, eastern lowland gorillas are known to travel long distances through the forests in searching for fruit, but they are also known to eat leaves, nuts, berries, insects, and the occasional lizard or rodent. These gorillas have also been observed using tools in order to gather food more effectively.
Because eastern lowland gorillas are large, the only other predators they have to deal with (besides humans) are the occasional leopard or crocodile.
More about Democratic Republic of Congo, eastern lowland gorilla, grauer's gorilla, Report, Wildlife conservation society
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