CALABAR, Nigeria (December 11, 2017) – He’s tall, muscular and has striking black hair. He is shy, known locally as “Ichi,” and he’s looking for a mate. Please leave him alone.

That’s the message researchers from WCS have been putting out since a lone male Cross River Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) – Africa’s rarest ape – has been spotted on the outskirts of two Nigerian villages, miles from the nearest forest.

Cross River gorillas have rarely been seen in the wild; they avoid humans by living on the steepest most inaccessible mountain slopes. But this gorilla has recently been spotted close to the villages of Ofambe and Okiro in Obudu LGA, several miles outside of Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary the nearest gorilla stronghold.

The researchers believe the gorilla is a “blackback” – a young male that has recently left its family group to start its own.  Gorillas normally live in small groups composed of a large dominant male known as a silverback together with three-to-four females and their young. When these young gorillas mature, they leave to join another gorilla group. 

Each blackback gorilla must roam the forest in search of a mate.  These wanderings are very important for the long-term survival of the species, allowing for the exchange of genes between groups.

WCS has been educating village chiefs about the gorillas, which are harmless, to prevent them from being killed. Thanks to this increased awareness, and two enlightened village chiefs in Ofambe (Chief Julius Ochui) and Okiro (Chief Augustine Bitte), the presence of this gorilla so close to the village has so far been tolerated by the community. Additional education efforts include a radio show and Facebook page.

Said Dr. Richard Bergl of the North Carolina Zoo: “Roaming blackbacks do not represent a threat to humans, but may come close to villages as they attempt to cross between one forest patch to another. In the past these gorillas may have been killed, representing a significant loss to such a small population.”

Cross River Gorilla expert Dr. Inaoyom Imong of WCS in Calabar said: “As long as the gorilla is left alone it will likely find its way back to the forest, and hopefully a mate. This would be a positive outcome for conservation and the future of Nigeria’s biological heritage.”

Dirck Byler, Chief of Africa Programs at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said: “We are pleased to be able to support this important work to recover the critically endangered Cross River gorilla.  The news of a blackback dispersing outside of Afi is a clear indication that this project is having a significant impact in the region.”

The Cross River gorilla is restricted to the mountains of Cross River State in Nigeria and adjacent areas in the south western region of Cameroon.  Gorillas in Nigeria only occur at three different sites: the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, the Mbe Mountains, and the Okwangwo Division of Cross River National Park.  After decades of hunting and habitat loss, only 100 Cross River gorillas are estimated to survive in Nigeria and another 200 estimated in Cameroon. 

WCS works to save Cross River gorillas through support for protected area management and wildlife law enforcement in Cross River National Park in Nigeria, along with Takamanda National Park, Mone River Forest Reserve, Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary and the Mbulu forest (not a formal protected area) in Cameroon. These efforts are combined with support for community-based gorilla protection including the gorilla guardian program, conservation education, research and sustainable livelihood development. WCS work is supported by the Great Ape Conservation Fund of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the MacArthur Foundation, and the World Bank. Further support across the adjacent range of the species in Cameroon is provided by the German development bank (KfW) through the Program for Sustainable Management of Natural Resources (PSMNR). A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation.