The FVGP welcomed a young female gorilla to its quarantine facility on June 8, 2011. Like all other chimpanzee and gorilla orphans in Equatorial Africa , she was captured illegally by hunters who likely also killed her parents. Unlike most great ape orphans, she managed to survive and was ceased by local wildlife authorities. She is now undergoing the end of her quarantine phase and will join 6 other orphaned gorillas with whom she will undergo forest rehabilitation, away from humans.
All gorillas and chimpanzees are threatened with extinction in the wild within the next couple of decades if current illegal hunting trends persist , if the unsustainable extraction of natural ressources continues, added to an increasing trend in emerging infectious diseases in some locations. Gorillas are currently classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of threatened species.
Illegally-captured and detained female gorilla (Lastourville)
Last August 23, we were called by an anonymous informer regarding a young female gorilla who had been captured after her mother had been killed in a village nearby Lastourville (Gabon). The informer enquired as to whether we wanted to purchase this gorilla. (This is where it can get complicated since it is crucial NOT to encourage the illegal pet trade by purchasing orphaned animals. The purchase of an animal can lead the hunter or “merchant” to believe that there is a demand for them). We therefore declined to purchase her, but rather offered to provide assistance with finding a solution for her placement.
Within 24 hours, the wildlife authorities were informed of this gorilla. All gorillas are integrally protected by law which means that hunting, transporting, detaining, selling, purchasing or consuming one is illegal. So, in essence, once wildlife authorities are alerted, they initiate an investigation with the goal of confiscating the illegally-detained animal. It can be complicated for wildlife authorities to confiscate an animal since the “owners” of the illegally-detained animals can be brutal (and even armed), but also because wildlife authorities aren’t trained on the application of basic biosecurity measures or on the care of the animals once they are confiscated.
On September 5, we left the site and traveled by road to Lastourville (about 30 hours through dirt roads). Our goal was to provide immediate assistance with the care of the gorilla if she were to be confiscated. However, we were aware that she may have already passed away by the time we arrived. Young gorillas are extremely vulnerable and are dependent on their mothers for food, safety and affection. Once they are taken away from their mothers, they become stressed and are usually ignored by their human “owners” (usually the hunters or their family members) so are cold, dehydrated and malnourished.
When we arrived in Lastourville on September 7, the wildlife authorities paired up with the local police officers to organise the confiscation. A Gabonese representative was sent to the village in order to gather more information on the gorilla. Upon his return, he informed us that the gorilla had passed away four days prior when she had been placed in a metal drum used to contain her. Much to our disappointment, the authorities did not follow-up on the investigation regardless of the fact that she died so that no one was held accountable for her mother’s death, her capture, her detention or her death. As a result, we have written up a mission report and intend to follow-up at a higher level with the wildlife authorities. The road ahead is a long one. But we continue to hope that - with continuous education campaigns, improvement of law enforcement, the development of alternative employment through agriculture and ecotourism, among others – our efforts, here at the FVGP, are not in vain.
Only ten months after their transfer onto an island of their own, the six young gorillas orphaned by the bush meat trade are progressing well. They no longer sleep within their wooden orphanage and continue to improve their foraging skills based on the amount of time they spend performing this activity throughout the day, and the number of wild plants they continue adding to their repertoire. This short video was taken in early May of 2010 by the FVGP's team leader who works daily with the gorillas. Since August 2008, the gorillas have had no contact with humans other than their Gabonese caretakers whom they seem to consider as their "surrogate parents". Thank you for checking up on the latest FVGP news and for your continued support.
Text by Sarah Monaghan, images by SCD B.V.
Seven poor African children fly to Paris on dream-of-a-lifetime trip to be crowned ‘Young Ambassadors of the Great Apes’.
She was one of two children from Gabon and five from Uganda who were jetted to France by UNESCO and the French Environment Ministry (MEEDDM) to be crowned ‘Young Ambassadors of the Great Apes’ as a culminating event for the UN Year of the Gorilla (YoG). The event (5th December) was timed to coincide with the run-up to COP15, the United Nations’ climate change conference in Copenhagen.
UN YoG Ambassador Ian Redmond, the British conservationist and colleague of the late Dian Fossey, was at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris for the inauguration ceremony of the children who will return to their countries in their ambassadorial roles to spread the conservation message.
Sephora and Guinola at Eiffel Tower
- image by Sarah Monaghan
They were selected from more than 100 schools in Gabon and Uganda that since 2008 have been taking part in a nationwide educational awareness project called Great Apes and their Habitat to teach them about the importance of protecting great apes from extinction and preventing deforestation and climate change.
“Getting children involved is the key to the future,” said Ian Redmond. “Children will be either the conservationists or the bush meat customers of the future. If we can convince them to help protect the great apes, they will educate their parents and their peers.”
Like the Slumdog Millionaire cast children who were whisked to London for all the glamour of the Oscars, the seven children came from poor families who survive mainly by subsistence farming. They all live in close proximity to wild gorillas.
The project is supported by numerous conservation organisations including the Jane Goodall Institute, UNESCO, the Convention on Migratory Species, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Wildlife Conservation Society. In 2010, it will be rolled out in Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon.
Great apes in the garden
The five from Uganda are from near Mgahinga and Bwindi national parks, the only region in the world where tourists can see some of the world’s remaining estimated population of 750 wild mountain gorillas.
Both species are considered ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN and face extinction. The main threats include logging and loss of habitat, bush meat hunting, disease and the impact of war and political unrest.
Immaculate Nyiransenga (17), one of the Ugandan young ambassadors to travel to Paris, said that people’s attitudes to gorillas in Mgahinga could be negative despite the income gorilla tourism brings in.
“We live on the edge of the park so sometimes the gorillas come into the gardens and raid our banana crops,” she said. “But now I consider gorillas like my brothers – we have to be tolerant and live together.”
Gorillas on the menu
In Gabon a survey of the 4,600 children who took part in the Great Apes and their Habitat educational awareness project revealed that up to 70% from the Loango area had eaten gorilla and up to 90% had eaten chimpanzee.
In Asséwé, the small village where Sephora lives, most people get by growing manioc, sweet potato and bananas and small-scale fishing. Over half of the children surveyed here said their fathers regularly went bush meat hunting, “In my village, people love to eat gorilla and chimpanzee meat,” said Sephora. “They will put a bullet in a gorilla as soon as they see one in a tree.”
But the awareness project, she said, had changed her mind. “I wouldn’t eat gorilla meat now – I couldn’t – the education project has given me a different idea of gorillas. We have to protect them, not eat them,” she said.
The park has a ‘tourism pays for conservation’ ethos and its operator Africa’s Eden (www.africas-eden.com) supports a pioneering gorilla reintroduction programme that successfully transferred six bush meat gorilla orphans into the wild in July.
Herman was part of the team of conservationists who over the last 18 months have visited 66 schools in Gabon with the Great Apes and their Habitat educational awareness project.
“When we started talking of gorillas in terms of their being vulnerable and sensitive creatures, the children looked shocked,” he said. “They considered them aggressive and frightening and had no idea of the importance of their role in seed dispersal and the forest life cycle.”
Changing cultural attitudes is a major challenge to overcome in protecting the dwindling populations of gorillas and chimpanzees in Africa. “I used to hunt monkeys and sell them for money to buy things I needed like exercise books for school when I was a kid,” said Herman. Gorillas are also believed to confer strength. “Gorilla is a meat that the village chiefs want to eat because it is a big strong animal and they believe that in eating it, they will become powerful,” said Ian Redmond.
“It’s an engrained cultural attitude we have to try to change. If I’d grown up in a village like that I’d probably think the same thing.”
As part of the Great Apes and their Habitat educational awareness project, the children were shown models of gorilla skulls, hands and feet.
“They were so like humans’!” said Guinola Guigambou (12) who is from Omboué in Gabon and the other Gabonese young ambassador of the great apes to be taken to Paris. “It made me realise how closely we’re related.”
Sabrina Krief, primatologist at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris and founder of the Projet pour la Conservation des Grands Singes, devised the Great Apes and their Habitat educational awareness project which through games and models teaches children the importance of preserving the biodiversity in the world’s remaining tropical forests.
The Great Apes and their Habitat educational awareness project was devised by primatologist Sabrina Krief at the French Natural History Museum (Projet pour la Conservation des Grands Singes (http://sabrina-jm-krief.com/education%20environnement.html)) with the help of local conservation NGOs and the environment ministries in Uganda and Gabon.
Since 2008, more than 15,000 school children in 52 schools in Uganda have learned about the critically endangered mountain gorilla and 4,600 children in 66 schools in Gabon (many of them live in forestry concessions as Gabon is 85% forested).
Text by Sarah Monaghan, images by SCD B.V.
SIX YOUNG GORILLAS, rescued from the illegal bush meat trade, have begun new independent lives on a lagoon island just outside Loango National Park in Gabon.
Staff at the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) are celebrating after announcing the successful transfer of the six juvenile western lowland gorillas (a species deemed critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List (IUCN)) onto the safe island in the Fernan-Vaz Lagoon.
This is the first step in a reintroduction project that is hoped will allow them to return entirely to the wild and follows a three-year-long ‘rehab programme’ to prepare them for release.
One step closer to freedom
Halfway through the Year of the Gorilla, the transfer marks the beginning of the gorillas’ independence. They have exchanged their human-built shelters for the palm-fringed forested islet where they can now live in relative safety from threats from poachers or other predators. The transfer was supervised by the Fernan-Vaz Gorilla Project (FGVP) director Nick Bachand and his team of Gabonese keepers.
"We all felt a hint of sadness as the gorillas left the place where their journey started," said Nick Bachand, a veterinarian. "But this was instantly replaced with a mountain of pride when we observed some of the gorillas starting to build their own nests to sleep outside overnight." Building self-made nests is an important indication, among others, of the young gorillas’ progress during this second phase of their rehabilitation.
The oldest male, Gimenu, 7, was rescued in an emaciated state from a Gabonese zoo where he had spent three years in complete isolation. He is accompanied by Sindila, 4, an abandoned male found by tourists on a river excursion, and Ivindo, also 4, flown in from the Ivindo National Park in 2005. The youngest female, Wanga, 2, was left on the doorstep of a conservationist’s home in the southern half of Loango National Park while the other two Cessé and Eliwa, 3 and 2, were donated by another great-ape rescue centre in Gabon.
A small team of local keepers will continue to monitor their progress from a base camp in the central zone of Orique island, where their new home is.
The Fernan-Vaz Gorilla Project comprises a Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Programme. All its resident gorillas were rescued after the parents were killed illegally by hunters for bush meat. The purpose of the Sanctuary is to provide a safe home for gorillas that can never return to the wild as they lack the critical survival skills usually taught by their parents in the first six to eight years of their lives.
The younger gorillas are part of its Rehabilitation Programme, however, and have undergone its quarantine and socialisation stages. They now have the potential to be reintroduced into the wild although many challenges and uncertainties remain.
‘Gorilla rehab’ plays strategic role in survival of great apes
"We have to find ways to restore value to Africa’s forests, and reintroduction places focus on the African wildlife in the African forests," said Doug Cress, executive director of PASA.
He added: "It’s no good for any of us to aspire to having the world’s largest captive population of chimpanzees or gorillas – even if we are saving lives. That is not conservation and it is not sending messages that can be translated into environmental action."
Return to the wild
In the meantime, the project is working hard to raise local and global awareness on issues facing the gorillas, to encourage research that emphasises the needs of the local people, and to integrate responsible tourism, as part of a national and international effort to save the gorilla from extinction in the wild.
From our veterinarian & head of the project Nick Bachand:
Here is a small update on what is hapening on the grounds of the FVGP.
All the gorillas in the rehabilitation centre are doing great and evolving well. They are all, including 'baby' Wanga, continuing to actively explore the forest throughout the day. We aim to transfer the gorillas to a larger island in April / May 2009, the next step toward reintroduction into the wild.
The canal for Mabeke's new enclosure is finally done. We can now focus on building the new Sanctuary enclosure which will provide Mabeke, Ownedja and Essougoué with ten times more natural space. The enclosure is intended to provide more space, more trees for Izowuet and Owendja, and better viewing opportunities for both gorillas and visitors alike.
We just finalised our second education campaign and targetted 7 different villages in the Fernan-Vaz lagoon region. We managed to reach out to 475 children this time around. Some 12 % of all children reported consuming gorilla versus 18% for chimpanzees. Many of the locals also shared their frustration with elephants and gorillas ravagng their plantations, which represent meonths of work and financial security for many of these local families.
The UNEP Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), the UNEP/UNESCO Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) have joined hands to declare 2009 the Year of the Gorilla (YoG).
Visit their website at: