Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society have discovered signs of the world’s least known gorilla—the eastern lowland or Grauer’s gorilla—in uncharted forests of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The scientists, working in the Itombwe region, found the apes’ nests more than 30 miles south of their previously known range.

Dr. James Deutsch, director of WCS-Africa, said the news offers hope for the survival of the subspecies and a renewed impetus to protect this area of Africa’s Albertine Rift. His colleagues announced the discovery on June 10 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.

Researchers also found signs that chimpanzees range more widely in Itombwe than previously known, and discovered new frog and toad species, which are in the process of being named. The survey team included four mammal experts, two ornithologists, two botanists, and one herpetologist.

Conservationists recognize the forests of Itombwe, which cover more than 5,400 square miles, as important centers of biodiversity. The area also contains minerals, and its remoteness has led rebel groups and others to exploit these natural resources. Because the frequent presence of rebels makes it dangerous to work in the forests, they are poorly documented.

Sporadic wildlife surveys were conducted in 1996 and between 2003 and 2007. Then, between June 2008 and January 2009, a period of relative calm ensued, and enabled the survey team to reach these formerly inaccessible areas to determine whether gorillas, chimpanzees, and elephants had survived the area’s conflicts.

The eastern lowland gorilla lives exclusively in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which has experienced decades of warfare and insecurity. They are close relatives of mountain gorillas, although they tend to inhabit forests at lower elevations and eat more fruit than their cousins. They are also larger in size than the other three types of gorillas, 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 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 WCS’s Albertine Rift Program.

Plumptre added that the discovery would help to demarcate boundaries for the new Itombwe Reserve that is currently in creation. The findings will also factor into discussions with local communities, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other parties concerned with protecting 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). The Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN—the Congolese Wildlife Authority) also provided support.