WESTERN GORILLAS: Recommendations for their Conservation

Will our children live in a world without gorillas?
The vast majority of the world’s gorillas live in the forests of central west Africa, not in the mountains of east Africa. At a recent meeting (May 2002) in Leipzig, Germany (funded by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the Great Ape Conservation Fund, US Fish & Wildlife Service), reports from the field were unanimous in showing that western gorillas are threatened by commercial poaching throughout their range. Field researchers, conservation scientists and representatives of habitat countries, pooled their knowledge to identify solutions in terms of a pragmatic strategy that if implemented immediately will really make a difference.

With immediate investment in law enforcement this decline could be reversed. Although habitat destruction does contribute to the decline, large-scale commercial poaching threatens to drive western gorillas to extinction. Hunting of gorillas is illegal in all range states, but even in national parks gorillas are not safe. Poaching has reached crisis levels due to the rapid expansion of logging, civil unrest and lack of management capacity. Present conservation activities have not succeeded and the consensus of the expert group at Leipzig is that without truly effective law enforcement western gorillas may go extinct in our lifetimes.

Past international investment has not sufficiently focused on building law enforcement capacity. The international community must immediately help range countries enforce existing national and international laws. In the longer term gorilla conservation should focus on creating a network of effectively managed protected areas funded through sustainable mechanisms such as trust funds.

Focusing on gorillas makes sense as gorillas have a range of characteristics that legitimise their adoption as the emblematic species for conservation in central Africa. Gorillas are charismatic flagships, vulnerable to disturbance, ecologically demanding umbrella species in that if measures are taken to protect them, a myriad of other species that share their habitat will also be protected. Thanks to field research over the past two decades, more is known about gorillas than any other species and the bottom line is that if we are unable to galvanise efforts to conserve western gorillas, the world will be a poorer place for our children to live in.

1) Law enforcement capacity is strengthened to allow habitat countries to effectively enforce existing national laws and international conventions that protect gorillas.

2) A network of ecologically representative protected areas must be created across the geographical range of western gorillas.

3) Sustainable funding mechanisms such as Trust Funds are created to ensure stable and sufficient revenues for management and research within protected areas.

4) Precise estimates of the numbers of western gorillas remaining are obtained and a system to monitor future population trends put in place.

5) Road access to logging concessions is strictly controlled to reduce the negative impact of selective logging on western gorillas.

6) Impact studies are conducted for all new infrastructure projects to minimise the detrimental effects of economic development on western gorillas.

7) A system of independent evaluation of conservation and research activities is established to improve effectiveness and transparency.

8) A network linking all efforts to conserve western gorillas is established to optimise performance.

The expert group gathered at Leipzig developed a Conservation Strategy for western gorillas based on these recommendations. The cost of an immediate and concerted response to act upon these recommendations was estimated at ***dollars a year. A fund to protect forever the habitat of these amazing animals would cost only about 3 dollars for each person in the developed world.