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125,000 Endangered Gorillas Discovered In Congo

09/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A recent census of the forests of the northern Congo Republic revealed a thriving community of 125,000 western lowland gorillas. Discovered through a collaborative effort between the Wildlife Conservation Society and Congolese biologists, this exciting news arrives as 48% of the world's primates face extinction. In the 1980's estimates revealed that 100,000 gorillas lived in the region, however, the numbers are said to have diminished to 50,000 in the 1990's due to outbreaks of the Ebola virus and rampant hunting. In 2007, the gorillas were listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

NPR reported on the significance of the "mother lode" of uncovered gorillas.

"We have found the mother lode of western lowland gorillas," said Steven Sanderson, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which led the research. "We had no idea that these great densities, that is numbers per square kilometer [of the gorillas], were possible in central Congo."

The discovery comes even as other gorillas living in central Africa are being pushed toward extinction. Sanderson says there are few signs that the gorillas in Congo's northern forests have been affected by the problems that have all but wiped out gorilla populations in other parts of Africa -- wars, commercial poaching, massive logging operations and disease epidemics linked in part to frequent contact with humans.

Biologists view this discovery as an opportunity to protect the endangered gorillas. Currently, 634 primate species are categorized as endangered: 11% are Critically Endangered, 22% Endangered and 15% Vulnerable.

"This is the light of hope you look for," said Richard G. Ruggerio, a conservation biologist at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. But he cautioned that the large gorilla populations in the two studied tracts, which cover 18,000 square miles, should not lead to complacency. "It's a different kind of alarm call, an opportunity that is increasingly rare on this planet -- to do something before there's a crisis," he said.

In his Dot Earth blog,
Andrew C. Revkin reflects on the western lowland gorillas' second-chance:

In this increasingly human-dominated world -- with its increasingly sharkless seas, its temperate forests nibbled bare by unstalked deer, its jungles silenced by bushmeat snares -- it may well be that the rarest thing in nature these days is abundance.

That is why so many primatologists were happily stunned by the results of a gorilla survey in northern Congo Republic.

Related:

::Watch the Wildlife Conservation Society's video on the Congolese gorillas.
::Read Treehugger's report on what can be done to save primates.
::More about the environment from the Huffington Post.

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