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Conservationists have this week launched a major project to protect one of Africa’s most threatened great ape species.
The collaborative approach between Bristol Zoological Society (BZS) and the University of the West of England (UWE) will see a research base set-up in Monte Alén National Park, mainland Equatorial Guinea, where experts will focus their efforts on protecting western lowland gorillas.
In 2005, it was estimated that around 2,000 of the Critically Endangered primates lived in the national park. Current numbers are unknown.
Their dwindling population numbers are reflected across five other African countries where western lowlands are found, including Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo and Gabon.
The exact number of western lowland gorillas is not known because they inhabit some of the densest and remote rainforests in Africa; however, recent estimates have shown that as few as 360,000 remain across their range. In addition, scientists predict gorilla numbers have declined by more than 60 per cent over the last 20 to 25 years.
In 2014, the IUCN released a 10-year Regional Action Plan for the Conservation of Western Lowland Gorillas and Central Chimpanzees 2015-2025.
In this plan, experts highlighted priority landscapes and actions to ensure the conservation of the species. One of the sites of ‘Exceptional Importance’ (meaning it holds more than five per cent of the global population of gorillas) was the Monte Alén-Monts de Cristal-Abanga Landscape - a transboundary region between Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
A senior lecturer in conservation science from UWE Bristol, Dr David Fernández, has just touched-down in the country to begin working on a joint project to provide active protection for the species which is seriously threatened by bushmeat hunting and habitat loss.
It’s the first time for more than a decade that conservationists and research teams have focused their attention in the National Park. The project team from Bristol Zoological Society and UWE has just completed a five-year strategic plan for activities focused on conserving this species in the region.
Dr Fernández explained: “We know very little about the biodiversity of the Monte Alén National Park but know it is a hugely important area for ape conservation.
“Our efforts will see us working with local communities to find sustainable alternatives to bushmeat hunting as well as training local field technicians and international graduate students in research methods.
“Behaviour change is a crucial part of our project and our aim is to promote behaviours that conserve gorilla habitat among local communities. We’ll also be implementing policy, advocacy, and action planning work with the Equatoguinean government to encourage better enforcement of laws against primate hunting”.
Dr Gráinne McCabe, Bristol Zoological Society’s head of field conservation and science, who is leading the project, explained: “The size of the remaining population of western lowland gorillas in Monte Alén is currently unclear, and our first step is to determine if we still have a healthy population here. This population is considered highly irreplaceable, meaning loss of these animals due to hunting or habitat destruction would have a disastrous impact on the species.
“These gorillas help maintain a well-functioning ecosystem for many other species in the park as they are seed-dispersers, so their loss is not only detrimental to the future of these amazing primates but also fellow residents of their habitat.
“It can take on average 16 years for an animal’s IUCN Red List status to change, from a high threatened category to a lower one, so results won’t be immediate, but we are extremely hopeful to see population numbers stabilising as we continue to work in the region.”
The five-year strategy for the project is estimated to cost around £500,000. Some of the funding will be spent on placing camera traps around the National Park to determine how western lowland gorillas are using the forest, as well as the population size.
This activity is in partnership with The Biodiversity Initiative - an NGO focused on creating an inventory of the wildlife of Equatorial Guinea.
Bristol Zoological Society has been focused on the conservation of apes in Central Africa since 2003. Its initial project centred on the creation of a community hunting zone in the buffer region around the Dja Biosphere Reserve in southern Cameroon; an important gorilla habitat.
In addition to the Society’s work in Dja, it has also provided long-term support to Ape Action Africa - a primate sanctuary based at Mefou National Park, Yaoundé, Cameroon.
Bristol Zoological Society also participates in a breeding programme which has seen two gorillas born to our family group at Bristol Zoo Gardens since 2016.
Bristol Zoo’s family of western lowland gorillas live on Gorilla Island and in their award-winning Gorilla House which is sponsored by Bristol-based Nessy Learning Ltd.
To find out more about the project and how you could help towards the protection of threatened species across the world, visit our gorilla conservation page or contact the our development team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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