Strategy for Protection

WESTERN GORILLAS: A Strategy 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. A fund to protect forever the habitat of these amazing animals would cost only about 3 dollars for each person in the developed world.

Why worry about western gorillas?

Western gorillas occur in the lowland tropical rain forests of central west Africa. Gorillas occur throughout the forested parts of Gabon, Congo, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Central African Republic with outlier populations in the Cross River region on the border of Nigeria and Cameroon, and in Cabinda, Angola and south-western Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The history of western gorilla populations is now being revealed by genetic studies and it is clear that some large rivers have been barriers to gene flow and that some outlier populations have been separated for a long time from the core population. Throughout their range western gorillas are under pressure from hunting and habitat disturbance and the remaining populations are increasingly fragmented. Until recently it was feared that the Cross River gorillas had become extinct but surveys revealed that a critically endangered population remains numbering maybe as few as 200 and fragmented into at least 9 isolated habitat blocks. Any western gorilla populations that remain in Cabinda, Angola and DRC are likely to be similarly small, fragmented and critically endangered.

Within the forests of central west Africa, gorillas play a number of important ecological roles. Gorillas in lowland forests eat fruit, pith and leaves and are important seed dispersers for hundreds of plant species. Feeding on leaves and stems exerts selective pressure and influences patterns of forest regeneration. Gorilla groups occupy large home ranges and travel widely to find the best sources of food available in each season. A large area of habitat must be protected to maintain viable populations of western gorillas and will, at the same time, protect many other plant and animal species making gorillas good umbrella species on which to focus conservation efforts.

Gorillas are particularly vulnerable to threats and have limited capacity to recover from population declines caused by hunting, disease or disturbance. Like all large mammals, they occur at low population density. Their vulnerability stems from slow rates of maturation and reproduction and is compounded by aspects of their behaviour. Males will actively defend females and immatures and this increases the risk of being killed by a hunter. Following the death of a group silverback, groups are disrupted and other members may die. Certain rare resources such as swamps and particular tree species provide keystone foods that tide gorillas over times of food scarcity. Loss of access to such resources will cause rapid population decline even if the majority of the habitat remains intact.

If gorillas become extinct, forest structure and species composition will change and the overall resilience of forests (to disturbance, disease and climate change) will be reduced.

A Conservation Strategy for Western Gorillas

A conservation strategy is a series of inter-related activities that are required to address the threats faced by western gorillas. The intensity of threats varies between populations: some such as the Cross River gorillas of Nigeria and Cameroon are already critically endangered while others remain less immediately threatened for the moment. The alarming thing is that despite increased conservation investment over the past decade, populations are declining throughout the range of western gorillas and given this, no populations can be considered as safe over the long term.

The recommendations below are followed by a list of necessary activities that the Leipzig group identified as crucial. Other actions are needed particularly to address underlying causes of the wider biodiversity crisis, notably as political instability, corruption, institutional weakness and human population growth, but while recognising the importance of these issues, they clearly lie outwith the professional expertise of the Leipzig group.

The 8 recommendations are presented in order of urgency of implementation and can be considered as the backbone of the conservation strategy. The expertise of the Leipzig group allowed four cross-cutting issues to be fleshed out and recommended approaches and activities in the domains of monitoring, ecotourism, training & capacity building and genetics are presented with estimates of the cost of these specific actions in Boxes 1-4.

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

Experience with mountain gorilla conservation shows that capacity for effective law enforcement is the essential foundation for gorilla conservation. The vast majority of the recent and ongoing decline in numbers of western gorillas is due to illegal hunting and without effective law enforcement, the decline will continue. Law enforcement must be effective not only in protected areas, but also in logging concessions and cities.

Necessary activities:

* Reinforce, train and equip wildlife law enforcement personnel;
* Promote public awareness of national and international laws;
* Educate the judiciary about the importance of wildlife laws and the need to apply appropriate sanctions;
* Implicate all national law enforcement agencies (police, gendarmerie, customs, army) in the strict application of wildlife laws and encourage co-operation between agencies;
* Regulate & control the commercial bushmeat trade with respect to existing laws and sustainable levels of harvesting.

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

Recent results of research have underlined the ecological, behavioural and genetic diversity of western gorillas. Protection of the whole range of this diversity is important and is best achieved by ensuring that viable populations of gorillas occur within protected areas. Strictly protected areas (IUCN category II) that maintain intact natural ecosystems are the corner stone of a conservation strategy for western gorillas. Only within such areas do the needs of animals take precedence over the immediate economic needs of humans.

Necessary activities:

* Evaluate the existing protected areas in each habitat country in terms of their potential for protecting viable populations of gorillas (size) and their locations with respect to documented genetic and ecological variation;
* Incorporate monitoring of gorilla populations (Box 1) into protected area management plans.
* Incorporate recommendations to reduce risks of disease transmission and the pros and cons of gorilla habituation for ecotourism or research (Box 2) into management plans;
* Improve co-operation between existing protected areas.

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

Insufficient funding and lack of financial security are the biggest obstacles to effective management of protected areas. The governments of western gorilla habitat countries are unable to provide sufficient funds for conservation. Funds provided by the international community (foreign aid and conservation NGOs) must now be channelled into sustainable funding mechanisms as the current practice of short-term projects does not allow effective management of protected areas. Visitor fees and other revenues, including international mechanisms such as “carbon credits”, generated by protected areas should contribute directly to protected area management costs.

Necessary activities:

* Lobby donor organisations;
* Assist habitat countries to make institutional reforms to give national wildlife departments the necessary autonomy to diversify their funding sources;
* Explore new sources of revenue for conservation particularly with the private sector (oil & timber);
* Encourage collaboration among donor agencies.

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

Despite the fact that more research effort has been invested in western gorillas over the past 2 decades than in any other species in central west Africa, we have no idea how many gorillas remain and information on current geographical distribution is patchy. All indications suggest that western gorillas are in the midst of a serious decline but we lack good estimates of the rate of decline. Traditional census methods based on nest counts produce biased and imprecise results and may underestimate real rates of decline by as much as 50%. The clear research priority is to remedy this situation and develop reliable ways of obtaining precise population estimates and of monitoring trends. Such information is essential in order to mobilise international action and to implement and evaluate effective management activities. Given the very large area where western gorillas occur, it is essential to identify the most cost-effective approach (Box 1). However, for some critically endangered and unique populations such as the Cross River gorillas of Cameroon and Nigeria, investment in population censuses based on individual identification of DNA obtained from non-invasive samples (dung & hair) is warranted (Box 3).

Necessary activities:

* Conduct a regionwide population survey of the western gorilla (Box 1);
* Implement at regular intervals censuses of small, critically endangered, western gorilla populations, using molecular genetic identification and the capture-recapture technique (Box 3);
* Design the most precise method possible to survey, and subsequently monitor, populations of western lowland gorillas across their geographical range using spatial modelling methods to interpret counts of gorilla dung and nests (Box 1);
* Create a network of field research stations willing and able to collect specific data required for analysis of census data (decay rates of dung and nests, defecation rates etc.);
* Conduct a population survey in each of the western gorilla habitat countries;
* Create national capacity for long-term monitoring of western gorilla populations (Box 4);
* Create regional capacity for co-ordinating and optimising conservation of western gorillas through circulation of information, up-dating methods and communicating results.

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

Logging concessions cover very large areas of western gorilla habitat. Commercial logging in Central Africa is selective and typically results in loss of about 10% of canopy cover and basal area but does not directly lead to loss of any plant or animal species. Workers employed by logging companies hunt to feed themselves and their families and this must be regulated with respect to national laws. The major threat comes from commercial bushmeat hunting which is facilitated by logging companies through construction of roads. Roads allow hunters access to forests previously protected by their isolation and also the transport of bushmeat to urban markets. The link between logging and the bushmeat trade has been widely reported in the media and consumer pressure is having some impact. Logging companies committed to sustainable harvesting of timber are now seeking solutions that include wise management of wildlife within their concessions in order to obtain green labels, or “certification” of their timber. Pilot partnerships between logging companies and conservation NGOs in Congo, Gabon and Cameroon, have produced encouraging results and show that barriers to control access (of vehicles and hunters involved in the bushmeat trade) and transport (of hunters and bushmeat in company vehicles) is not only possible, but also the most cost effective way to reduce hunting pressure. Other measures that reduce habitat disturbance and fragmentation within logging concessions are needed and opportunities exist to collect baseline data on gorilla numbers and distribution within concessions and it is essential to monitor gorilla population trends over time. Logging concessions cover 5-10 times the area of protected areas and thus measures to minimise negative impacts of logging on western gorillas are of great significance to the conservation strategy.

Necessary activities:

* Extend the lessons learned from existing collaborations between the conservation and logging communities to assist all logging companies to enforce national wildlife laws on their concessions;
* Promote green labelling schemes for timber that include specific requirements that reduce to a minimum all negative impacts of logging on western gorillas;
* Encourage and assist logging companies to join green labelling schemes that include sound wildlife management practices;
* Collaborate with national wildlife authorities and logging companies to monitor the effects of logging on western lowland gorilla populations over time (Box 1 & 4).

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

The economic development of western gorilla habitat countries depends heavily on the exploitation of natural resources and the agricultural sector. Pursuit of these legitimate objectives depends on improving transport networks and conversion of natural forests in addition to extraction and processing of mineral and timber reserves. Taking the needs of wildlife into account in the planning of development activities allows detrimental effects and the risk of ecological catastrophes to be minimised. For example, major roads and railways form barriers to animal movement and increase hunting pressure in adjacent forest habitats, so constructing a new road through, or close to, an existing protected area will have serious negative impacts. Similarly, locating industrial saw mills within logging concessions will have negative impacts on wildlife by greatly increasing the number of people living in the forest and it is preferable to locate industrial units within existing towns.

Necessary activities:

* Undertake environmental impact assessments of all new development projects;
* Create a GIS database showing the location of sensitive habitats and species and make it accessible to national and provincial planning agencies;
* Protect sensitive areas from deforestation (catchment areas for town water supplies, hydroelectric dams, steep slopes etc.);
* Minimise negative impacts of agricultural activities by taking account of risks of crop-raiding, potential for “escape” of invasive exotic species into natural habitats etc.

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

Conservation and research activities in western gorilla habitat countries often suffer from a lack of coherence as most are externally funded and individually planned. Active participation of national governments in priority setting and planning is increasing but more needs to be done to improve the effectiveness of both research and conservation. Investment in training and capacity building in the conservation and research sector is essential and should be a major goal of all conservation and research projects (Box 4). Independent evaluation of on-going and planned projects, conducted at regular intervals would optimise investment (of both time and money) by reducing redundancy and channelling efforts towards priority activities or sites and increase transparency and collaboration.

Necessary activities:

* Creation of in-country capacity and international collaboration for evaluation of research and conservation activities;
* Lobby funding agencies to support an independent evaluation system;
* Improve communication and access to information related to conservation and research activities at local, national, regional and international levels;
* Facilitate exchanges between students, managers and policy makers.

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

The Leipzig workshop brought together people working on western gorillas at 13 different sites in central west Africa. The value of exchanging data and knowledge about the gorillas, the threats that they face and debating the design of a conservation strategy was clear and led to the formulation of these recommendations. The Leipzig workshop centred on field researchers and it is a priority to extend the group to include greater presence of national wildlife authorities, funding agencies and all other interested parties. The challenges that lie ahead are significant and there is a need to formalise the network of concerned people and organisations.

Necessary activities:

* Enlarge the group to include all interested parties;
* Creation of a Web site to make information on western gorillas and on activities related to their conservation available to everyone (in French and in English);
* Encourage funding agencies as well as existing and planned conservation projects to join the group and adopt these recommendations;
* Harness the full potential of the group to optimise the conservation strategy for western gorillas and respond rapidly to priority needs;
* Facilitate communication and contacts to create training opportunities for and involvement of habitat country nationals.

To be finalised:

Box 1. Monitoring Recommendations
Box 2. Ecotourism Recommendations
Box 3. Genetics Recommendations
Box 4. Capacity Building Recommendations