Four rare mountain gorillas have died after being struck by lightning in an equal parts peculiar and unfortunate turn of events for an endangered species that only recently topped 1,000 individuals.
The bodies of three adult females, one of which was pregnant, and a male infant were discovered in Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park this week. All four bodies bore “gross lesions” believed to be from electrocution, with all signs pointing to lightning as the likely cause, a Ugandan conservation group reported Friday.
The Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC) called their deaths a “big loss for the species.”
“This was extremely sad,” GVTC’s executive secretary Andrew Seguya told the BBC. “The potential of the three females for their contribution to the population was immense.”
The GVTC said post-mortem samples are currently being tested to confirm the cause of death, and they should have an answer within the next three weeks, per the BBC’s report. The four mountain gorillas were part of a larger group of 17—dubbed the Hirwa family by local authorities—that originally migrated from Rwanda and had been living in the Ugandan park for the last year. The species is restricted to protected areas within the two countries along with similar sanctuaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A recent survey put the total population of free-ranging mountain gorillas at 1,063, an encouraging result indicating conservation efforts had helped nearly double their numbers in the last decade. A census from 2008 estimated the total population at just 680 gorillas.
Despite this success, these gorillas are still pitifully low in number, and major threats to their survival such as loss of habitat, civil unrest, man-made traps, and climate change continue to pose a serious risk. It was only recently that their population swelled enough to become simply endangered. Mountain gorillas remained critically endangered for decades until 2018, when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature elevated the species’ status to “Endangered” once they surpassed 1,000 individuals.