Good News: Gorillas Thrive

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Thomas Breuer/ Wildlife Conservation Society-Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology / Handout / Reuters

A western lowland gorilla silverback is seen among a group in this undated handout photo. A crowd of gorillas has survived in the northern part of the Republic of Congo, so many that environmentalists can double population estimate.

One of the rules of journalism is that news from Africa is always bad news. That's grossly unfair, of course, but score one for giddy optimism with the news that a new census of endangered gorillas shows that the population of one species — the western lowland gorilla — is more than double that of previous estimates. According to a recent count conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the government of the Republic of the Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville, which is distinct from the larger, neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo), the forests and swamps in the country's north are home to more than 125,000 western lowland gorillas.

The previous best estimate for the entire population of the western lowland gorilla — one of four gorilla species — was 100,000 across seven countries, and that was a figure from the 1980s. Some scientists believed that number had halved since then. But the old counts had overlooked gorillas living in remote and inaccessible swamps in the Congo's north. The new survey discovered 73,000 gorillas in the Ntokou-Pikounda region of the Congo and another 52,000 in an area called Ndoki-Likouala landscape — including a previously unknown population of nearly 6,000 gorillas living deep in the swamp. Some of these animals were surely included in the original 1980s estimate, so even the most optimistic census takers aren't simply adding the 125,000 freshly counted individuals to that old number. Still, they think it's safe to say that 200,000 is now a good estimate of the total western-lowland-gorilla population.

"The world is pretty hard-pressed to find good stories about conservation these days," said a jubilant Dr. Steven E. Sanderson, president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society. "This is just a fabulous story. These figures show that the northern Republic of Congo contains the mother lode of gorillas. It also shows that conservation in the Republic of Congo is working. This discovery should be a rallying cry for the world that we can protect other vulnerable and endangered species." Patrick Mehlman, Kinshasa-based senior director of the Central Africa Program of Conservation International, who has studied African primates for decades, called the report "extraordinary" and added, "If the data checks out, we may even have to look at reclassifying their status on the endangered list."

Of course, such a happy mood in the conservation world couldn't last. Within hours of Tuesday's announcement came another one, this one from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which compiles the Red List of Threatened Species. It concluded that even as gorillas thrive, 300 of the world's 634 species of other primates face extinction. To blame: those old villains, the hunters, rain-forest loggers and slash-and-burn palm-oil farmers. "In many places, primates are quite literally being eaten to extinction," said Russell Mittermeier of the IUCN. "We've raised concerns for years about primates being in peril, but now we have solid data to show the situation is far more severe than imagined."

One expert, Richard Wrangham, president of the International Primatological Society, even blamed part of the problem on those confounded lucky gorillas. "Among the African species, the great apes such as gorillas and bonobos have always tended to grab the limelight," he said. "Even though they are deeply threatened, it is smaller primates such as the red colobus that could die out first." The western lowland gorilla may not yet be safe, but at least it's less deeply threatened than before.