Dear EarthTalk: Has the recent violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo threatened the populations of lowland gorillas? How many are left?

— Glenn Hammond, San Francisco, Calif.

The short answer is yes, dramatically. Not to be confused with Western Lowland Gorillas, which are thriving in significant numbers in neighboring Congo (a recent census counted 125,000), today fewer than 5,000 Eastern Lowland Gorillas are estimated to remain in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), formerly known as Zaire. Some 17,000 inhabited the region as recently as 1994, but today habitat loss, hunting, and war and violence are combining to push them over the edge.

Following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, an influx of refugees, along with bloodthirsty militias, moved across the border into the neighboring DRC. These militias set up training grounds in the very forests the gorillas call home, making conservation work impractical to say the least. Park rangers, game wardens and wildlife researchers either fled their wooded beats or were removed at gunpoint.

In the wake of this, civilian populations in the affected areas still had to make ends meet somehow. So hunting for so-called “bushmeat,” and cutting down the forest for firewood, charcoal and space for agricultural plots became the means for day-to-day survival, and continue to this day. Some 91 percent of the human population in the region practice subsistence agriculture. This means that large swaths of gorilla habitat throughout the region have been converted to farms. At the same time, 96 percent of the locals rely on firewood as their main supply of energy for warmth and cooking. “Forested parks are for many of them the last remaining source of fuel,” reports the Year of the Gorilla website.

Because the violence has been so persistent and the research areas so vulnerable, scientists don’t really know how badly Eastern Lowland Gorilla populations have been affected. The Year of the Gorilla Project, in conjunction with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other groups, is working to reinstate regular monitoring and effective surveillance of the remaining Eastern Lowland Gorilla population throughout Kahuzi-Biega National Park, where armed factions have proliferated.

“The last reliable data on population size and distribution were recorded in 1995, and it is suspected that the population has shrunk dramatically since,” reports the Year of the Gorilla Web site. “New, precise information will be one outcome of this project, enabling intelligent and effective approaches to the conservation of this rare species.”

Biologists, environmentalists and wildlife fans the world over are certainly hoping for the best, and will no doubt continue to watch what happens as the fate of some of our closest relatives on the planet hangs in the balance.

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