‘Not all hope is lost’ as outlook for mountain gorillas brightens

The IUCN has changed the status of mountain gorillas from Critically Endangered to Endangered.

Article by John C. Cannon.

Decades of “extreme” conservation have lifted the mountain gorilla from the edge of extinction, leading the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to change the animal’s status from the more dire “critically endangered” to “endangered.”

“The good news is this really shows that when we invest long-term in conservation … we can change the tide for these animals,” Tara Stoinski, CEO and chief scientific officer of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, said in an interview.

First brought to the attention of Western scientists and conservation groups by biologist George Schaller and later by researcher Dian Fossey in the 1960s, the mountain gorilla subspecies (Gorilla beringei beringei) had plummeted to just a few hundred individuals by the 1980s. Hunting, civil unrest and the loss of gorilla habitat to farmland in the forested mountains of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo led Fossey to warn that these animals, one of humankind’s closest relatives, might appear only in the pages of books by the year 2000 if there wasn’t an effort to save them.

Fortunately for the gorillas, the governments of the range countries, along with the Fossey Fund and several other conservation groups, launched into action. Despite the still-mysterious murder of Fossey herself in 1985, they came together to work with local communities to halt habitat loss and manage conflict between farmers and gorillas, treat injury and disease in the populations, and protect the animals from poaching. Gorillas currently enjoy 20 times more protection from field staff per given area than the average for other animals, said Stoinski, one of the authors of the new IUCN assessment published today.

Now, for the first time in decades, there are now more than 1,000 mountain gorillas, some 600 of them adults, and it’s currently the only non-human great ape that is increasing in number — key factors in the animal’s status change.

“We’re both privileged and humbled by the fact that veterinary medicine has played such an important role in the recovery of mountain gorillas,” Kirsten Gilardi, a veterinarian and the U.S. director of the nonprofit organization Gorilla Doctors, said in an email. “That said, the line between Critically Endangered and Endangered is razor thin.”

Veterinarians and staff from Gorilla Doctors can often be found in the difficult terrain that mountain gorillas inhabit, monitoring them for diseases and wounds from illegal bushmeat snares, which remain a threat to the gorillas’ survival, said Gilardi, who is also an author of the latest assessment.

“The conservationists are having great success in conditions that are often very difficult,” Chris Tyler-Smith, a geneticist with the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the U.K., said in an email. “The gorillas, and future generations of people all over the world, owe an enormous debt to them.”

But he echoed Gilardi’s view that the work is not over.

“This is progress, not victory,” he said. “The current level of conservation effort definitely needs to be continued.”

One concern with so few animals is that they might not have a robust enough storehouse of unique genetic information to sustain the subspecies. Tyler-Smith and his colleagues looked at that very question, probing the DNA of mountain gorillas and their sister subspecies, the Grauer’s or eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), going back hundreds of thousands of years. In a study published in the journalSciencein 2015, they report that the long slide in populations of mountain and Grauer’s gorillas over the past 100,000 years or so has whittled down the diversity of their genomes.

That uniformity is much higher than what’s found in western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) and “even the most inbred human populations,” and it could be worrisome. Still, the fact that gorillas have survived with low levels of genetic diversity suggests they’re in a position to rebuild their numbers from a small but solid genetic foundation.

“Our work shows that the population is genetically healthy, and there is no genetic reason why the mountain gorillas should not continue to thrive for thousands of years into the future,” Tyler-Smith said.

Stoinski said the coalition of conservation groups and governments remained committed to the survival of mountain gorillas, even as the threats that the coalition has managed to keep at bay still linger.

Amid a wash of disheartening news about the environment, including the recent warning about what might happen if we don’t address global warming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a report from WWF about the sweeping declines in vertebrate populations over the past four decades, Stoinski said it could be tempting to think that wildlife and the spaces they inhabit were doomed.

But the mountain gorillas’ recovery bucks that trend, providing a source of inspiration, she said. More than that, it’s a proven model that the Fossey Fund is now rolling out to protect Grauer’s gorillas in their native DRC, where the population is down by nearly 80 percent in just the last two decades.

What’s more, this milestone for mountain gorillas demonstrates the possibilities when people come together around a common conservation goal.

“It shows that we can make a difference,” Stoinski said. “Not all hope is lost.”

Banner image of a young mountain gorilla courtesy of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

Citations

Hickey, J.R., Basabose, A., Gilardi, K.V., Greer, D., Nampindo, S., Robbins, M.M. & Stoinski, T.S. 2018. Gorilla beringei ssp. beringei. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T39999A17989719. Downloaded on 14 November 2018.

Xue, Y., Prado-Martinez, J., Sudmant, P. H., Narasimhan, V., Ayub, Q., Szpak, M., … & De Manuel, M. (2015). Mountain gorilla genomes reveal the impact of long-term population decline and inbreeding. Science, 348(6231), 242-245.

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