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Communities and conservationist bring endangered gorillas back from the brink

Communities and conservationist bring endangered gorillas back from the brink
In 2020, Wildlife Conservation Society’s remote camera traps captured the first images of Cross River gorillas with a number of infants, in the Mbe Mountains. (Photo: WCS)

The population of a gorilla species once thought to be extinct is on the rise after communities came together to protect the gorillas, which are mainly found along the borders of Nigeria and Cameroon. A conservationist has been at the forefront of these efforts.

Cross River gorillas — once believed to be extinct — are experiencing something of a population revival in the southwest of Nigeria thanks to joint conservation efforts by the nine communities surrounding the Mbe Mountains where the gorillas are prevalent.

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Rising to heights of 900m, the Mbe Mountains are also an important habitat for a number of other unique species, such as the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee. (Photo: Wild Africa Fund)

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Jonathan Eban is one of 16 eco-guards working to protect gorilla habitat in the Mbe Mountains. (Photo: Wild Africa Fund)

Leading the efforts is Jonathan Eban, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s project manager at the Mbe Mountains — along the borders of Cameroon and Nigeria — who has been working as an eco-guard for the past 12 years. During this time, his team has monitored the gorillas and conducted patrols to ensure none were killed by poachers. 

“We have been doing this for the past 12 years. We discovered that the number of gorillas was actually increasing. Though we haven’t conducted a census yet, we have camera footage in Mbe Mountain that shows babies and infant gorillas. That is a clear indicator that the gorilla populations are increasing,” Eban said.

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Jacob Osang, a bushmeat hunter turned eco-guard, surveys the forest canopy. (Photo: Wild Africa Fund)

“[In] 2012, there was a census projected by the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] gorilla action plan, that put the population between 25 and 30. Since then, we haven’t conducted a formal census to really know the number at present. However, we capture a lot of footage on camera traps, and the estimate is at 35 or 40,” Eban said in a call from his base in the Mbe Mountains.  

The mountains are also the home of unique species including the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, drill monkeys and grey-necked rockfowls. The demand for bushmeat, which fetches high prices at markets, has contributed to the endangerment of the gorillas.

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Anti-poaching and gorilla-monitoring patrols are a key component of the team’s daily life. (Photo: Wild Africa Fund)

Read more in Daily Maverick: How a coincidental wildlife conservationist is working to save rare chimps and monkeys in Nigeria

According to the IUCN Red List, the Cross River gorilla has been considered critically endangered since 2016 because of its declining population. The gorilla’s dwindling numbers are closely linked to poaching, while habitat loss from agriculture, logging and road construction, alongside snares targeting other species, has also been a contributing factor. It’s estimated that there are about 100 to 250 mature Cross River gorillas. 

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Jacob Osang checks a remote camera trap, set to monitor the movements of Cross River gorillas across a large and remote territory. (Photo: Wild Africa Fund)

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Images from the remote camera traps are processed in the team’s office with much anticipation. (Photo: Wild Africa Fund)

Eban said that in the 1980s, Cross River gorillas were thought to be extinct — until a hunter from a community near the Mbe Mountains captured a baby Cross River gorilla. International conservation bodies learnt of this, which sparked the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Mbe Mountains project. 

“There haven’t been gorilla killings since the inception of this project, but people still hunt to sustain their livelihood. Hunting and the expansion of agricultural land are a threat. But it can be fixed if handled properly with long-term conservation in mind,” Eban said.

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Cross River gorillas survive within a small mountainous area at the headwaters of the Cross River. (Photo: Wild Africa Fund)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Unsung hero — forest ranger ends elephant poaching and educates communities on harmonious wildlife coexistence

The Wildlife Conservation Society also works with local communities to explore livelihoods such as beekeeping, snail farming and supplying improved cocoa varieties. 

Eban said the project needed more funding to support alternative livelihoods, ensure sustainable development and develop the necessary infrastructure through strategic partnerships. This would take pressure off the forest as a source of livelihood and enhance the conservation of the forest. DM

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  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Thank you for a heartwarming and inspiring report … in an age when it in danger of going extinction ! What a dedicated group of individuals involved in the project. Viva !

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