Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society Find Signs of Eastern Lowland Gorillas Outside of Known Range

NEW YORK (June 10, 2009)—Scientists from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) announced today the discovery that the world’s least known gorilla—the eastern lowland gorilla or Grauer’s gorilla—survives in previously unexplored forests of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Specifically, researchers from WCS working in the forests of DR Congo’s Itombwe region found signs (nests) of eastern lowland gorillas in areas where they previously were not known to occur.

The announcement was made today at the Gorilla Symposium, an event convened by the UNEP-Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals, the German Ministry for the Environment, the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Frankfurt Zoological Society at the Frankfurt Zoo in Germany.

“Today’s announcement that Grauer’s gorillas inhabit forests in Itombwe more than 50 kilometers (more than 30 miles) south of their previously known range gives hope for the survival of the subspecies and a renewed impetus for protecting this extraordinary biodiversity area in the Albertine Rift of Africa,” said Dr. James Deutsch, Director of WCS’s Africa Programs.

Researchers also found indications of a wider range for chimpanzees in Itombwe than previously known.

The forests of Itombwe are poorly documented because of the frequent presence of rebel groups, which makes them dangerous places in which to work. A period of relative calm enabled the survey team to reach these formerly inaccessible areas to determine if gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, and other wildlife had persisted through the area’s conflicts.

The new gorilla areas were identified between June 2008 and January 2009 by a survey team that included four mammal experts, two ornithologists, two botanists, and one herpetologist. These forests had been sporadically surveyed for wildlife in 1996 and between 2003 and 2007.

The eastern lowland gorilla lives exclusively in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where decades of warfare and insecurity have prevented researchers from determining their exact numbers and range. They are close relatives of mountain gorillas, although they tend to inhabit lower elevation habitats and eat more fruit than mountain gorillas. They are also larger in size than the other three types of gorilla, growing to more than 500 pounds in weight. Eastern lowland gorillas are listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN’s Red List and may now number as few as 8,000 individuals.

The forests of Itombwe are recognized by conservationists as an important center of biodiversity, covering some 14,000 square kilometers (more than 5,400 square miles). Along with the findings that indicate a larger range for eastern lowland gorillas, researchers have also discovered frog and toad species that are new to science and in the process of being named.

The area also contains minerals and as a result of its remoteness, rebel groups and others have sought to exploit the natural resources there.

“The findings of our survey will be important to conservation efforts for eastern lowland gorillas and their habitat, primarily because so little is known about this subspecies.” said Dr. Andrew Plumptre, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Albertine Rift Program. “In particular it will help us in the development of plans for the demarcation of boundaries for the Itombwe Reserve, which is in the process of being created.”

The new findings will factor into discussions with local communities, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and all interested parties about how best to protect the region’s natural resources for the benefit of both wildlife and people.

The surveys were funded by WCS, the World Wildlife Fund, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Great Ape Conservation Fund, and the US Agency for International Development’s Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (USAID-CARPE) and were supported by the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN—the Congolese Wildlife Authority).

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of seven African nations supported by USAID-CARPE. Support through the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has augmented funds for great apes conservation in the region through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-administered Great Ape Conservation Fund. Since 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has invested more than $14.5 million for the conservation of gorillas, chimpanzees, and other great apes and has leveraged more than $17 million in private donations and matching funds. WCS has been a partner and recipient of this invaluable grant program. The Great Ape Conservation Act, which authorizes this fund, expires in 2010 and efforts to renew the fund have begun.

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