The conservationists have captured the first images of a group of rare Cross River gorillas with multiple babies in Nigeria’s Mbe mountains, proof that the subspecies once feared to be extinct is reproducing amid protection efforts.
Only around 300 Cross River gorillas were known to be alive at one point in the isolated mountainous region in Nigeria and Cameroon, according to the wildlife conservation society, which captured the camera trap images in May. More color images were recovered last month.
John Oates, professor emeritus at the City University of New York and a primatologist who helped establish conservation efforts for the gorillas more than two decades ago, was excited about the new images.
“It was fantastic to see the proof that these gorillas in these mountains are reproducing successfully because there have been so few images in the past,” he told The Associated Press.
“We know very little about what’s going on with reproduction with this sub-species, so to see many young animals is a positive sign.”
Experts do not know how many Cross River gorillas remain in the mountain cluster and have been trying to track the sub-species for quite a while.
Around fifty cameras were setup in 2012 and several images have been captured in Cameroon’s Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary and in Nigeria’s Mbe Mountains community forest and Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary.
But Cross River gorillas are certainly difficult to capture collectively on camera and no pictures had captured numerous infants.
Since the mid-1990s, an alliance of 9 local communities, the Conservation Association of the Mbe Mountains, has been working with the Wildlife Conservation Society to help in protecting the Cross River gorillas. Since then time, there have been no recorded deaths in Nigeria, as per the society.
According to the society’s Nigeria country director, Andrew Dunn, the gorillas at one point had been believed to be extinct.
“It’s a huge success story that shows communities can protect their wildlife,” he told the AP.
The Cross River gorillas have been in danger for decades primarily by hunting activities but also by loss of habitat as residents cut down forests to make new way for agriculture.
The sub-species was “rediscovered” in the late 1980s. Up to hundred Cross River gorillas have since been recorded in Nigeria’s Cross River State and around 200 in Cameroon in a trans border region of about 12,000 square kilometers (4,633 square miles).
The Mbe mountains forest is home to about 1/3rd of the Nigeria population.
The gorillas are extremely shy of humans and their existence is detected mostly by their nests, dung and feeding trails, say experts .
A team of around 16 eco-guards have been recruited from neighboring communities to patrol and protect the gorillas as well as other wildlife, Dunn said.
Inaoyom Imong, director of WCS Nigeria’s Cross River Landscape project, said that witnessing a few young gorillas in a group is amazing.
The new photos were taken in a community forest without any formal protection status, Imong said, “an indication we can have strong community support in conservation.”
Hunting was always the main threat, he added, but “we do believe that hunting has reduced significantly.” The conservation groups are also working to lower down illegal cutting of forests, he said.
But other dangers remain.
“Although hunters no longer target gorillas, snares set for other animals create a threat to the gorillas as infants can be caught in them and potentially die from injuries,” Imong explained. Disease is also a potential threat, along with conflict and insecurity in Cameroon.
“Refugees from the ongoing insecurity in Cameroon are also moving into the area, and they’ll likely rise hunting pressure and the need for more farmland,” Dunn stated.
As for now, they must count on the work of Nigerian communities.
Chief Damian Aria, the head of the village of Wula said,”I feel honored to be part of the efforts that are producing these results,”.
He told the AP his community as well as others have worked hard to assist in preserving the natural habitat for the gorillas, and they’re proud of their efforts.
“We are so happy they are reproducing,” he added. While the gorillas’ livelihood is important for nature, Aria also hopes that mountain communities in the mean time will gain from the tourism they might bring.