The Gorillas of Rio Muni – The challenge of ape conservation in Equatorial Guinea

On Wednesday evening I attended an interesting lecture about ape conservation at Bristol Zoo. The hour-long talk was hosted by Dr Gráinne McCabe, a Biological Anthropologist specialising in primate behaviour and ecology, and the Head of Conservation Science at the zoo.

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The Conservation Education Centre @ Bristol Zoo

It was only the second time I had attended such a sit-down discussion, the first being the wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan ‘Animal Families and me’ tour back in October of last year. I try not too, but I often feel a little bewildered by the other people who attend these talks – they’ve all been on such marvellous adventures! I overheard one woman sitting a couple of seats away from me talking about a recent weekend away bird watching in Finland, and another woman behind me was planning a trip to Tanzania in the coming months.

Dr McCabe spent most of the hour talking about the zoo’s newest conservation project: Protecting the western lowland gorillas for Rio Muni in the African country of Equatorial Guinea. The zoo has fourteen conservation projects running at the moment, most focused in Africa, a couple in the UK, one in the Philippines and one in Costa Rica. The projects are chosen either because that is where the zoo’s conservation team have the most expertise, it is a species the staff are particularly passionate about, or the certain animal is already kept at the zoo as part of a breeding program; like the western lowland gorilla.

Traditionally the gorilla project was focused in Cameroon, but the zoo has recently been looking for a new site to expand their project, and it was the national park of Monte Alén that caught their eye.

– WESTERN LOWLAND GORILLA: SOME FACTS –

The western lowland gorilla is critically endangered, one of two subspecies of western gorilla and the most numerous/widespread of all gorilla species. Populations can be found in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea as well as in large areas in Gabon and the Republic of Congo. The exact number of them is unknown due to their habitats being some of the densest and remote forests in Africa, but it is believed to be around 362,000 instead of 150,000 as previously thought. Shockingly 80% of the population are thought to live outside of protected areas.

They are of slightly smaller size than the other subspecies of gorilla and can be identified by the grey-brown coats and auburn chests. They also have smaller ears but wider skulls and more pronounced brow ridges.

– THE BUSH MEAT AND PET TRADE –

Equatorial Guinea is made up of two islands and a mainland portion, Monte Alén national park is in the mainland. The park is known for its beautiful forests and rich biodiversity but the population of species is drastically declining because of bushmeat hunting. The primary threat to wildlife in the country! Bushmeat, especially that of apes, sells at a higher price than standard meat available in supermarkets. Dr McCabe claimed that it is not an alternative protein source because of a lack of protein, but rather because it’s considered a luxury item and status symbol.

Smaller species such as monkeys, rats, porcupines, pythons and dwarf crocodiles are readily available and are more common because the poachers have already out hunted the larger animals. This meat isn’t being sold for much either, a python, for example, may only be worth £6 or £7.

Another huge problem is the pet trade. Gorillas and chimpanzees are taken from the wild as juveniles and sold in markets or along the side of the road, they are also kept in hotels and used as photographic props.

Other threats include Ebola and other diseases, habitat loss and particularly for the gorillas of Equatorial Guinea – persecution from crop raiding.

– NOT BIG ENOUGH FOR EVERYONE –

Dr McCabe noted there are plenty of areas that are perfect habits for species like crocodiles and gorillas but right now, they’re all empty. She referred to this as ‘empty forest syndrome‘ which is essentially somewhere which is beautiful and intact – wildlife should be in abundance, but instead, there’s a breakdown in the ecosystem and all the apex predators have gone. The forests are now devoid of all life and sound. It’s depressing for me to imagine, let alone for these scientists to witness.

The areas around Monte Alén national park are now all villages and within those villages are farms. Equatorial Guinea was known for its healthy oil trade but when it collapsed, many workers in the cities had to return back to the country, farming was the only way they could make a decent wage.

Now because these farms are right at the edge of the national park, gorillas have been coming from the forest and taking the crops, as a result, the farmers have been shooting them. Dr McCabe pointed out that it is actually illegal to own guns or hunt primates in Equatorial Guinea but it’s rarely enforced.

Dr McCabe and her team have established a research base camp at the national park, setting up camera traps and bioacoustics to track the gorillas, as well as any illegal activity. These cameras will also allow them to identify if it’s just the gorilla’s crop raiding, or something else because, at the minute, it is just speculation from the villagers that it’s gorillas solely causing the problem.

– SO WHAT ARE THEY PROPOSING? –

Despite how doom and gloom the presentation was, Dr McCabe remained optimistic about the future of Equatorial Guinea and the creatures that live within it. She listed a set of recommendations to the Equatorial government that the zoo has proposed, as well as some objectives for themselves:

  • Encourage larger eco-guard force in the national park
  • Offer better support for alternative livelihoods
  • Have legitimate enforcement of existing legislation
  • Continue to participate in the gorilla EEP with breeding at Bristol Zoo Gardens
  • Publicise more arrests and prosecutions
  • Establish standardised great ape (and other large mammal) monitoring programmes
  • Continue to support Ape Action Africa in Cameroon
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The Conservation Education Centre @ Bristol Zoo

If you’re local to Bristol Zoo I definitely recommend checking out their lectures. They are free to attend, no need to book and are held monthly. For more information have a quick look here: https://www.bristolzoo.org.uk/save-wildlife/conservation-lectures

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