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Camera snaps first ever glimpse of a troop of the world’s rarest gorilla

  • A camera in Nigeria’s Mbe Mountains captured the first known images of a large group of Cross River gorillas, including adults, juveniles and babies, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
  • It’s estimated that there are about 300 Cross River gorillas left in the world, with about a third of the population living in three contiguous sites in Nigeria, and 30 to 35 individuals based in the Mbe Mountains.
  • Due to conservation efforts, no Cross River gorillas have been reported poached since 2012, according to WCS.

There are only about 300 Cross River gorillas left in the world, making them the rarest subspecies of gorilla, or indeed any great ape. But in late June, a camera located in Nigeria’s Mbe Mountains captured an encouraging sight: a group of Cross River gorillas, including several infants and juveniles, moseying past the lens.

This is the first time such a large group of Cross River gorillas (Gorilla gorilla diehli), including babies, has ever been photographed together, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an organization that works with local community members to actively protect these animals. Before this, there were only a few known images of the critically endangered subspecies, which came from camera traps in both Cameroon and Nigeria. These include pictures of an adult gorilla with a missing hand, likely from a snare injury, a lone silverback, as well as a mother gorilla carrying a single baby on her back.

“It is extremely exciting to see so many young Cross River gorillas — an encouraging indication that these gorillas are now well protected and reproducing successfully, after previous decades of hunting,” Inaoyom Imong, director of WCS Nigeria’s Cross River landscape, said in a statement. “While hunters in the region may no longer target gorillas, the threat of hunting remains, and we need to continue to improve the effectiveness of our protection efforts.”

A group of Cross River gorillas in the Mbe Mountains. Image by WCS Nigeria.

Andrew Dunn, Nigeria country director for WCS, told Mongabay in an email that the gorillas looked to be in good health based on the video. “The best sign of good health is successful breeding,” he said, “animals that are stressed or disturbed by humans will often stop reproducing.”

The Cross River gorillas only became known to science in the early 20th century, but little was done to protect them until the 1980s, when poaching and habitat destruction nearly wiped them out. In fact, the Cross River gorilla was once thought to be extinct in Nigeria, but a small population was rediscovered in the late 1980s, according to WCS.

The group included several babies and juveniles. Image by WCS Nigeria.

Now there are about 100 Cross River gorillas living in Nigeria across three contiguous sites: the Okwangwo Division of Cross River National Park (Okwangwo), Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Mbe Mountains community forest. In Mbe itself, there are about 30 to 35 Cross River gorillas, Dunn said. The rest of the subspecies lives in neighboring Cameroon. In both countries, these gorillas live in rugged and inaccessible parts of the forest, which is one reason why they’ve been so difficult to photograph.

In Nigeria, a team of 16 eco-guards, recruited from the local communities and trained by WCS, regularly patrol the forest to protect the gorillas and other threatened wildlife. WCS also works with local communities to raise awareness about the importance of conserving endangered wildlife, support local conservation efforts, and help sustain alternative livelihoods.

There haven’t been any reported deaths of Cross River gorillas in Nigeria since 2012, which Dunn says is a sign that conservation efforts are working.

A baby gorilla riding on an adult’s back in the Mbe Mountains. Image by WCS Nigeria.

“The footage is causing such a stir because it is a rare conservation success story — that such gentle giants can survive and indeed prosper in a country of 200 million people,” Dunn said. “The Mbe Mountain is land owned by the 9 local communities, [and] these gorillas are protected by local people (with support from WCS) and not by government. It is also a wonderful story in the midst of this dreadful pandemic, when most news from Nigeria is not always positive.”

A local community leader, Otu Bernard A. Eban, who is the head of the local Abo clan, also expressed his pleasure. “Seeing this today rekindles my hope that our communities will benefit from ecotourism in the future,” he said in a statement. “We will further strengthen our local laws to protect Cross River gorillas in the Mbe Mountains.”

Banner image caption: Cross river gorillas. Image by WCS Nigeria.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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