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Saving our nearest relatives

Humanity’s closest relative, the gorilla, is in danger. Development, poaching and war have been decimating one of the only animal species which, like us, can use tools. Nevertheless, UNESCO’s gorilla preservation projects have begun to bear fruit in this International Year of the Gorilla, 2009. The main objective of the International Year of the Gorilla is to mobilize decision-makers and the public to save this great ape species, a species capable of intelligent thinking, 95% of whose DNA is identical to ours. This is of vital importance as populations have been declining in recent decades.

Roni Amelan

Every animal species is valuable and has a part to play in maintaining the ecological balance of its natural habitat, but the cause of the gorilla elicits particular sympathy because they are so similar to us. So much so that their name, has its root the Greek word gorillai, meaning tribe of hairy women, used by the Carthaginian, Hanno the Navigator, who sailed along the coast of West Africa in the 5th century B.C. and spotted hirsute creatures, some kind of ape if not actual gorillas, on his voyage.

In the absence of visual evidence from Hanno’s journey, it is impossible to tell whether gorillas are indeed the “hairy women” he named. Up to date complete data about the gorillas is still not always available, but modern science divides them into two species - Eastern and Western gorillas - and four subspecies.

Social organization

Each subspecies has feeding, physiological and life style differences. But all gorillas are migratory and live in groups of five to 30 individuals dominated by one silverback adult male, typically 12 years of age or older. The silverback is the strong, dominant leader who is the centre of attention, makes all decisions, mediates conflicts, determines the movements of the group, leads the others to feeding sites and takes responsibility for the safety and well-being of all.

Younger males, called blackbacks, may serve as backup protection. Males will slowly begin to leave their original troop when they are about 11 years old, travelling alone or with a group of other males for 2–5 years before they attract females to form a new group and start breeding. Gorillas are vegetarian but silverbacks have been known to kill the young child of their predecessor. They will then mate with the female whose child they killed.

Gorillas only breed every three or four years. Because of their migratory lifestyle, they require a lot of space, which is why UNESCO favours the definition of large landscapes for their preservation, areas that include a wide buffer zone with biosphere reserves where people can find sustainable livelihoods. Education projects to help the inhabitants understand, respect and maximize the benefits of sustainable resource management are essential for the success of these preservation projects.

All species are important

Mambaele Mankoto of UNESCO’s Natural Science Sector is heartened by the recent increase observed in gorilla populations in the Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This improvement can be attributed to ambitious programmes for conservation of biodiversity in regions of armed conflict launched by UNESCO in 2000 with the United Nations Foundation and the European Union. The projects have focused heavily on helping forest guards carry out their allimportant work. “But conflicts are still latent and we must not lower our guard,” cautions Mankoto, who highlights the need to convince donors to provide funds for projects that specifically target gorilla preservation.

One way to reduce hunting for bushmeat and traditional medicine is to convince local populations that gorillas are worth more alive than dead. Conservation institutions in the RDC and the Rwandan National Parks Office have concluded an accord whereby gorillas that come from RDC to Rwanda are visited by tourists there and Rwanda pays a share of the profit, US$ 30,000 per annum on average, back to the RDC. Mankoto welcomes this as a fine example of transboundary cooperation within UNESCO’s mandate of peacebuilding with the gorillas as ambassadors.

Nevertheless, gorilla tourism must be managed with care, as contact with humans can have a negative impact on these great apes whose immune systems are unprepared for some of the diseases we carry. Humans also continue killing gorillas not just for bushmeat but also for cultural reasons. While some people still believe that placing a gorilla bone in a baby’s bathwater will fortify the child, the major threats facing our closest animal cousins remain deforestation, road-building, traps laid for other animals and mining.

Mankoto for his part hopes that the International Year of the Gorilla - launched by the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), the UNEP/UNESCO Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) - will serve as a plea for this animal which, in captivity, has proven it can acquire an impressive mastery of human sign language.

In their natural habitat, gorillas provide valuable services in forest husbandry as they make clearings along their migratory path, allowing the sun to reach the underbrush, and digest seeds of species which they disseminate in their faeces. Mankoto reminds us of the need to resist anthropocentrism: “All species are important; the loss of any species represents an impoverishment of the environment — physical, cultural and spiritual.”