Some Very Good News on Gorillas (and Some Bad News)

The western lowland gorilla
The western lowland gorilla
Photo: Heather Paul (Flickr)

In the realm of Good News Thursday, gorillas are faring better than scientists previously thought—much better, in fact.


A new study published in Science Advances shows that the giant ape’s numbers throughout western equatorial Africa could be twice as large as researchers believed. A team of researchers from around the world—including organizations like The Jane Goodall Institute and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research—examined numbers of the western lowland gorilla subspecies, by far the most populous branch of the gorilla family tree, in five countries from 2003 to 2013.

The team checked out 59 sites and discovered 361,900 gorillas were spread over Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon. Previous estimates pegged the population at 150,000 to 250,000 individuals. On-the-ground teams came to these conclusions after surveying nests—a whopping 12,524 of them.

Still, as great as this sounds, the new survey is quick to point out that gorilla numbers are falling. Fast. In the 10 years the gorillas were tracked, their population decreased by close to three percent a year. For now, the western lowland gorilla is definitely still “critically endangered.”

Most of the gorillas identified in the study live outside protected areas, so threats remains high—from poachers, deforestation, palm oil plantations, Ebola, and cultural traditions around eating gorilla meat. Their relatives to the east have have been hit hard in the past by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s civil war, and more recently by the mining industry.

But where there are guards and favorable high-canopy habitat, gorillas congregate, per the study. For the most part, gorilla density decreases as human density increases. Ultimately, what gorillas need are safe habitats and better protections. With every male gorilla a poacher or palm plantation kills, a band loses an alpha and is forced to replace him with another, who often kills the youth and exacerbates an already-perilous situation.

Even good news comes with a dose of reality.


Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.


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This is pretty good news. Better than a sharp stick in the eye kind of news, I guess.

I’ve been wondering lately why BIG environmental communications feels like they have to sell happy talk instead of laying it out as is. All the big blogs like Grist, Treehugger, Bill Nye The Science Guy, Woodsy the Owl Fan Club for Earth Kidz (not a real blog), etc do it. They try to keep it breezy by focusing on cool tech solutions for chipper tech forward youngins. Not those yucky problems that need almost mind-deadening explaining for good definition.

Most of the enviro blogs try to discuss the good things instead of the bad. Fine, I get that. Even NYT’s Dot Earth (RIP, but excellent blog) bent over backwards to keep it breezy and introduce all sides of the argument, while focusing on the complexity and confusion as to lower the concern. For the easily concernable, probably. Maybe it was assumed the audience was Park Slope young moms who don’t like to relay enviro negativity to hedge fund manager husbands after work. I don’t know.

One guess is that environmental science and engineering as it applies to protection of land, water, air, climate, human health isn’t all that interesting to most folks. But what subject matter can compete with Kim Kardashian discussing bleaching her [...] to her sisters? (still can’t get that out of my head)

Or maybe folks who get interested in environmental shit come to realize a career is chiefly about being in the field and collecting groundwater monitoring samples in Gary, Indiana or taking ice cores in Greenland or counting bugs and bunnies in the high chaparral of Nevada for weeks on end. Maybe communicating as inhouse image consultant about totally awesome sustainability practices of say Apple is a better gig for our green minded gifted and talented folks.

This rambling navel gazing comment is on point, damnit. The subject as presented by Yessenia is about primates study. My comment is about primates.