Snails don’t often get the opportunity to save great apes—even if they are African giant snails. But these mollusks are crawling to the rescue of Nigeria’s Cross River gorillas.

The rare and critically endangered gorillas live in Cross River National Park, a protected area, but sometimes, local villagers venture into the forest to kill them for bushmeat. The practice helped spawn a new initiative of the Wildlife Conservation Society to aid local people in setting up snail farms, which will expand their available options for food and livelihoods. Considered a delicacy, these large snails will offer a protein and income source to the communities.

“People living near Cross River gorillas have trouble finding alternative sources of income and food, and that’s why they poach,” said James Deutsch, director of the WCS’s Africa program. “We are working with them to test many livelihood alternatives, but perhaps the most promising, not to mention novel, is snail farming.”

The conservationists selected eight former hunters from four towns to become the new snail farmers. They built pens to house 230 snails each. These farms require little maintenance, and their results are expected to be quick (the results, not the snails) and delicious.

Needing food and income, hunters will kill almost anything they can find, but farming snails will likely be more profitable than the bushmeat trade. Operating a snail farm for one year costs about $87, but the endeavor could bring in a total of $413 from two harvests annually. Selling the meat of a gorilla fetches only about $70 in the bushmeat market.

Once thought to be extinct, Cross River gorillas were rediscovered in the 1980s. Their numbers, however, remain low, with less than 300 of the gorillas inhabiting the mountainous border between Nigeria and Cameroon. Since 1996, WCS has led a global effort to protect this ape, the most endangered in African. In 2008, with the government of Cameroon and other partners, WCS helped create Takamanda National Park. The new park helps safeguard a third of the Cross River gorilla population.

“Cross-River gorillas depend on law enforcement and conservation efforts to survive,” says Andrew Dunn, WCS’s Nigeria country director. “The work of the Arcus Foundation, WCS, and our dedicated field-staff to develop alternate livelihoods for local poachers is just one step on the road to recovery for these incredible animals.”

With additional funding from the Great Ape Conservation Fund of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Berggorilla and Regenwald Direkthilfe, WCS plans to extend the snail-farming project to other Cross River gorilla sites in Nigeria later this year. These sites include the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mbe Mountains.

Along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Great Ape Conservation Fund, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. State Department have supported gorilla conservation efforts through the Congo Basin Forest Partnership and Central African Regional Program for the Environment.  In January 2010, Deutsch testified before Congress in support of the reauthorization of H.R. 4416, the Great Ape Conservation Act, which would ensure programs like those that protect the Cross River gorilla continue to succeed.

The President’s FY11 budget calls for a reduction in funds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Multinational Species Conservation Funds, which include monies for great apes, rhinos, tigers, elephants, and sea turtles. WCS urges Congress to provide a modest increase in funds in FY11, including $2.5 million for the Great Ape Conservation Fund, to meet the conservation challenges facing great apes such as increased habitat loss, deforestation, logging, mining, and other human activities.