Eastern lowland gorillas are physically larger than other subspecies of gorillas in Africa. They live in both highland and lowland tropical forests in the democratic republic of Congo. Formally, gorillas were discovered in 1902. At the time there was little conservation attention of the species in addition to the unstable political instabilities in DRC before and after independence is suspected to be the root cause of dwindling numbers of eastern lowland gorillas.
Conservation organizations in partnership with the Congolese institute for nature and wildlife conservation estimated the population of eastern lowland gorillas to be 17,000 individuals in the early 1990’s. Shockingly however, the recent official census found out there are less than 4,000 individuals left in the wild representing 77% decline.
Sadly, there are few protected areas in DR Congo where the eastern lowland gorilla population lives which include Kahuzi-Beiga National Park and Itombwe massifs near virunga national park. Fortunately, however, the large populations of gorillas are confined in such limited ranges which still remain vulnerable to human encroachment.
Although gorillas are protected under the international and local conservation laws, gorillas remain threatened by human activities across their habitat ranges in DR Congo. Among the factors responsible for their decline include the following;
Poaching for bush meat. Regardless of the fact that it’s illegal to hunt, kill or hold in captivity the gorillas, poaching is by far the most serious factor why eastern lowland gorilla have declined. DR Congo’s long standing civil wars due presence of several armed militia groups, illegal mining camps have increasingly killed gorillas for bush meat as food for survival. In addition to killing gorillas for bush meat, the rebel and mining camps have escalated the fragmentation and disappearance of gorilla habitats in the unprotected areas around itombwe massifs and south kivu.
Degradation and loss of natural habitats is due to illegal human activities in the natural habitat for eastern lowland. DR Congo is one of the densely populated and mineral rich countries in Africa hence there is high demand and struggle for natural resources. This has resulted into illegal charcoal burning, housing settlements, cutting of timber and slash and burn farming which has led to fragmentation and loss of natural habitat leaving gorillas homeless and isolated. Forests are also lost through harvesting of plants, water and overgrazing due to poverty among the communities living around Kahuzi-Beiga national park.
Research data from the international union for conservation of nature for conservation of nature shows that 74 % of the natural habitat for gorillas is unprotected while 26 % are areas gazetted as national parks and reserves. Although wildlife rangers of DRC try to reinforce conservation and security presence to reduce illegal activities, the recent plans to explore oil and petroleum in Virunga region by the British SOCCO oil company puts yet another danger to gorillas in the future.
Civil wars and insecurity in DR Congo since the early 1990’s to date has for long led to death of large number of gorillas. The few numbers of eastern low land gorillas living outside the protected areas have suffered the consequences. Several rebel groups such as mai-mai, ADF, Interahamwe have established base camps which hinders conservation efforts. Civil wars further intensifies illegal mining, poaching, encroachment which altogether leads to decline of eastern lowland gorilla population. In protected areas such as Kahuzi-Beiga national park, there is relative conservation and security monitoring of gorillas due to presence of Congolese wildlife rangers.
Illegal trade of gorilla products has the potential to decline gorilla numbers because it leads to overexploitation. Gorillas are kidnapped, killed and traded for cash and other medicinal related uses which have resulted into their extinction if illegal trade is not reduced. Additionally, illegal trade of gorillas has also been undermining the efforts of gorilla conservationists in DR Congo to protect other wildlife which are also affected by the crisis. However, illegal trade plus other factors like habitat loss and civil wars have led to decline of eastern lowland gorillas.
The outbreak of epidemics and spread of human infectious diseases has also declined gorillas in DRC. Gorillas share 95% of their DNA with human beings; gorillas have been reported dead from human diseases like influenza and diarrhea which are associated with regular tourist visit to gorillas. Gorillas have also died of recent from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and DR Congo. Ebola spreads from people to gorillas and causes hemorrhagic fever which kills gorillas within few days.
Although the factors for the decline of eastern lowland gorillas remain apparent due to the continuing civil conflicts in eastern and south kivu province of DRC, there is hope for the future as conservation are being reinforced to gazette unprotected areas into national parks and reserves.
Gorilla tourism is also hoped to increase as tourists visits to gorillas generates huge revenues that fund conservation and development of local communities adjacent to eastern lowland gorilla national parks and forest reserves. Visit Kahuzi-Beiga national park and track the eastern lowland gorillas and help them survive. Tourists interested to visit the gorillas should contact a local tour operator who will organize an African safari for your enjoyment.