Conservation news

For Freedom the gorilla, a months-long journey back to the wilds of Cameroon

A crew carries Freedom to the return site Credit Passion Planet

  • In August 2019, a lone male gorilla wandered into a primate sanctuary in Cameroon, likely in search of a mate.
  • Because the sanctuary is in a heavily populated area, Ape Action Africa, which operates the Mefou Park, felt an immediate release would not be safe for the gorilla or the surrounding communities.
  • After a painstaking search for a suitable release site, the ape, named Freedom, became the first rescued gorilla to be returned to the wild in Cameroon.

In mid-December 2019, a team of veterinarians and caregivers looked on as a gorilla named Freedom quickly disappeared out of sight, the pounding of his feet on the forest floor soon the only indication of his presence.

The crew had traveled 12 hours across Cameroon by car and boat to transport the nearly 140-kilogram (300–pound) male western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) to his new wild home following three months of human care.

“It was a moment of incredible relief, joy and pride, and one that I and the team will never forget,” says Rachel Hogan, director of Ape Action Africa, via e-mail. It was also the first time that a rescued gorilla had been returned to the wild in Cameroon.

Freedom, a western lowland gorilla, wandered into a wildlife sanctuary in Cameroon. Male western lowland gorillas generally leave their natal groups as they mature, but Freedom had wandered into an area that was unsafe for wild apes.  Image by Passion Planet.

Freedom’s forest homecoming was a hopeful ending to a story that started on Aug. 24, when he wandered into Ape Action Africa’s Mefou Park. The group initially thought he was a resident of the sanctuary, which is home to 25 rescued gorillas and hundreds of other primates.

They soon discovered that he was a wild gorilla who had probably roamed into the area after leaving his natal group to find a mate. But now he was in an unsafe situation.

“We couldn’t have left Freedom where he was as it was a huge security risk,” Hogan says, noting that the sanctuary is located in a heavily human populated area. Not taking action would have been risky for both human communities and Freedom, she says.

Freedom’s story illustrates the pressure that wild gorillas in Cameroon face due to widespread habitat loss and fragmentation, largely due to logging and slash-and-burn agriculture. According to Global Forest Watch, the country lost 553,653 hectares (1.37 million acres) of forest and tree cover from 2002-2018.

The country’s great apes, which include the western lowland gorilla, Cross River gorilla (G. g. diehli), central chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes troglodytes) and Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (P. t. ellioti), are also up against a number of other threats: the trade of ape skulls and body parts, demand for bushmeat, the illegal pet trade, and climate change.

Despite these dangers, keeping a healthy, unhabituated adult ape like Freedom in the sanctuary was not a long-term solution, Hogan says. “He needed to go back into the wild where he belongs.”

Checking out possible return sites by boat.  It took months of searching to identify a suitable location for Freedom’s release. Image by Alex Benitez/Ape Action Africa.

So the organization temporarily housed Freedom while it searched for a suitable new wild home. This took months, Hogan says, because they needed to find a site far away from humans — a place that was both safe from poaching and where wild gorilla populations roam, albeit in small enough numbers that the arrival of a new male would be unlikely to negatively impact existing troops. Ape Action Africa worked closely with the country’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife to select and check several possible sites before making a final decision. After choosing a location, the team traveled there several times to perform evaluations and work with local authorities and communities to ensure a successful return for Freedom.

In the meantime, the sanctuary’s crew dealt with the challenges that came with housing a wild adult gorilla. Freedom was not habituated to humans and his confinement caused him some stress; he reacted to humans by screaming and charging. The organization adapted to this challenge by limiting access to Freedom’s area to management and experienced caregivers.

Finally, Freedom’s day to return to the wild arrived, but that came with its own set of obstacles. First, the logistics of securely transporting a gorilla double the weight of an average adult required building a special transport cage. The crew also had to clear a path through the dense forest that led to Freedom’s return site. “It took 12 men to carry the cage with Freedom inside, and we had to make adaptions to the boat,” Hogan says. “Logistically, it was a nightmare and very stressful. But we succeeded.”

Freedom crossing the river in the last leg of his return to the wild. Image by Ape Action Africa.

Ape Action Africa was assisted by a veterinary team from Twycross Zoo in the U.K. Sharon Redrobe, a veterinarian and CEO of the zoo, and Matyas Liptovszky, the zoo’s head of life sciences, flew to Cameroon to help  calculate sedation dosages and check Freedom’s health to ensure he was fit to return to the forest and would not be a health risk to the wild gorillas he would encounter. Following two health screenings, and an additional check by the government, the team from Twycross also assisted in Freedom’s journey and release to the forest.

Redrobe calls the mission a success, stressing the importance of collaborations between zoos and conservation organizations across the world. “We’re now in the sixth extinction crisis with great apes expected to be non-existent in the wild within 20 years,” she says in a press release from the zoo.

Ape Action Africa’s controller Appolinaire Ndohoudou and Twycross Zoo’s veterinarian Matyas Liptovszky tranquilizing Freedom before his journey. Image by Passion Planet.

Although relieved that Freedom is back in the wild, Hogan says she hopes the organization never experiences another situation like this, for the sake of the gorillas. “Freedom represents how humans are impacting forest areas and how wild populations are running out of space, which is why he ended up in our village,” she says. “This is incredible, as we have no wild populations in our area and we are very far from populated forests.”

All the same, she says she’s optimistic for his wild future.

“I hope Freedom is doing well and has found some females,” Hogan says. “When we opened the transport cage, he bolted out and ran. I like to think he kept running until he was very deep in the forest, far away from us all.”

Freedom returns to the forest. Image by Passion Planet.

Banner image: A crew carries Freedom to the return site, by Passion Planet.

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