Commercial Hunting and the Decline of Western Gorillas

Habitat Destruction is not the Major Cause of Western Gorilla Decline
Most people’s perceptions about gorillas are strongly influenced by the famous Mountain gorillas of East Africa. Habitat loss resulting from the rapid expansion of human populations has long been a major threat to Mountain gorillas, which are now been restricted to a few small pockets in Rwanda, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire): virtual islands swimming in a sea of human settlement. Because the effects of habitat loss on Mountain gorillas have been so well publicized, most people naturally assume that habitat loss must be the major threat to all gorillas. In reality, it is not the major threat facing the vast majority of the world’s remaining gorillas. Most Western gorillas (and also eastern lowland gorillas) live in areas with relatively low human settlement density. Much of Central Africa remains heavily forested (see map at right) and large swaths of Western gorilla range have human population densities of one person per square kilometer (0.4 people per square mile) or less. The real threat to Western gorilla is the recent development of a booming commercial trade in bushmeat. Over the last decade the impact of the trade in gorilla meat has been enormous as Western gorilla population densities in the heavily hunted forests near human population centers have plummeted. Only in peripheral parts of the range such as southeastern Nigeria, southwest Cameroon and the Cabinda enclave of Angola does habitat loss pose the major threat to western gorillas.

Traditional Hunting of Gorillas

Until relatively recently hunting gorillas was extremely dangerous work. Killing the members of a gorilla group requires first dispatching the large and powerful silverback, who will ferociously defend his social group. Traditional hunters exploited this group defense instinct by harassing the silverback until it charged, thereby, impaling itself on a spear firmly braced against a tree trunk or planted in the ground. This strategy was not always successful and many hunters, along with their valuable hunting dogs, were seriously maimed or killed in the pursuit of gorilla meat giving gorillas the undeserved reputation of being dangerous, aggressive beasts. The high risk of gorilla hunting made gorilla meat a sort of status symbol amongst ethnic groups which eat gorillas and contributed to belief that magical power comes to those who eat gorilla meat. Some ethnic groups recognized human-like qualities in gorillas and, until recently, did not hunt gorillas.
The New Commercial Trade in Gorilla Meat

The risk involved in gorilla hunting is now greatly reduced because firearms, particularly automatic weapons seeping out of the many civil conflicts in the region, are readily available. Unfortunately, cultural attitudes about the value of gorilla meat have not kept pace with this reduction in risk. Indeed the reverse has occurred as ethnic mixing has broken down taboos removing the cultural protection enjoyed by some gorilla populations. Serving gorilla meat is still perceived as a symbol of great status. Furthermore, this status symbol is no longer accessible only to village elders but also to a blossoming class of affluent, urban wage earners with a taste for gorilla meat. This increased demand has spawned a new class of commercial hunters, or poachers as they should rightly be called (gorilla hunting is illegal in every Western gorilla range country). As easily accessible populations of gorillas have been driven to extinction, gorilla poaching is no longer an occasional, subsistence activity of local villagers. It has become a highly lucrative commercial enterprise organized by powerful people. It now extends to remote areas where roving gangs of professional poachers will kill every animal they encounter.

Commercial Hunting Linked to Logging

A critical factor in the explosion of the commercial trade in gorilla meat is the rapid expansion of logging in Central Africa over the last decade. The 1994 devaluation of the regional currency (the CFA Franc) made large scale, mechanized logging in Central Africa profitable for the first time. Since then, logging roads have penetrated ever deeper into once remote regions. These roads provide ready access to previously untapped hunting grounds. Huge logging camps, essentially small towns, have been erected where only a few scattered villages previously existed, providing a large local market of wage earners willing and able to pay for gorilla meat. What’s more, well-maintained logging roads allow rapid transport of meat out to market at regional population centers, with logging vehicles often acting as a primary mode of transport. Greatly improved rail and airline systems have even made it possible to move meat quickly from regional transportation hubs to large urban centers, where the growing Central African nouveau riche now reside. It is literally possible for a gorilla shot in a remote forest one day to be served 500miles (800km) away at a swanky urban restaurant the next. Some gorilla meat even finds its way to European capitols such as Brussels, Paris and London.