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Partnership Helps Rarest Ape Through Technology

By Lea Terhune | Staff Writer | 23 March 2012
Gorilla eating bamboo (Nicky Lankester)

Efforts to conserve the rare Cross River gorilla are funded in part by U.S. grants.

Washington — The Cross River gorilla was considered extinct until the 1980s, when it was sighted in its only known habitat, the mountainous rain forest along the Cameroon-Nigeria border. With fewer than 300 individuals of this unique subspecies remaining, it is the most endangered African ape. But there is good news as governments and conservation groups work to protect the gorilla and its habitat.

In cooperation with international partners, efforts to conserve the Cross River gorilla are supported by the New York–based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) through its Wildlife Without Borders program’s Great Ape Conservation Fund.

“The Wildlife Without Borders program works at the species, regional and global levels to leverage conservation actions designed to help restore at-risk species, enhance local people’s capacity to conserve wildlife and collaborate with partners to identify critical conservation issues of mutual concern,” USFWS Director Dan Ashe said. “This program provides crucial assistance to government agencies and organizations in Cameroon and Nigeria in developing a coordinated approach among Cross River gorilla partners,” Ashe said.

Encroachment of human settlements and farms upon gorilla habitat has isolated and fragmented the Cross River gorilla’s population and poses a major threat. Diseases and hunting for “bushmeat,” sold for food, also threaten these apes, making protection measures urgent.

At a February multipartner meeting, “we prioritized a number of forest areas that, if adequately protected and managed, can serve as corridors between groups of gorillas that would otherwise become increasingly isolated,” WCS gorilla expert Liz Macfie said in an email interview. Isolation could lead to local extinction, she said.

Conservation strategies include establishing sanctuaries where gorilla protection is strictly enforced; educating the local populace about the importance of gorilla conservation; and involving villagers in conservation programs that generate sustainable livelihoods.

Cameroon’s Takamanda National Park, a transboundary protected area adjoining Nigeria’s Cross River National Park, was established after years of work by WCS and the Cameroonian government. The sanctuary is a base for research and outreach to local communities.

Good news about Cross River gorillas came recently when the results of a scientific study were published in the online journal Oryx. Scientists from WCS, the North Carolina Zoo, Cameroon and Nigeria used satellite images and ground surveys to assess the gorilla’s range, finding that the gorillas roamed more than 50 percent more territory than previously thought. Data collection in the remote area was simplified by GPS technology and CyberTracker software. Park rangers use a touch-screen system that was originally designed for illiterate trackers to monitor wildlife in South Africa. It enables precise location mapping and on-site data recording.

“A large number of local people are involved in the conservation efforts of these gorillas,” Macfie said. In Nigeria’s Mbe Mountains, a community-managed wildlife sanctuary employs local “ecoguards” who monitor the gorilla population with CyberTracker. She added that Cameroonian rangers plan a visit “to exchange lessons learned and see the system in operation before rolling out a similar program in Cameroon.”

Grants from the USFWS Multinational Species Conservation Funds help conserve rhinoceros, tiger, Asian and African elephant, great ape and marine turtle populations in their range countries. According to USFWS, the status of some species has improved as a result, although much more must be done to conserve critically endangered species.

Fifty-one new grants from the Great Ape Conservation Fund in 2011 total nearly $4 million in leveraged funds for projects in Africa. USAID funds gorilla conservation in Cameroon through USFWS. USAID’s Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE) has invested more than $60 million to promote sustainable natural resource management in the Congo Basin, including great ape conservation in Cameroon and Nigeria.