2050: the last gorilla

World's greatest ape extinct within decades, warns UN

A A A

The gorilla is threatened with extinction by the mid-21st century if poaching and destruction of its habitat continue at the current rate, the United Nations has warned.

Within a decade, three of the four sub-species of the great ape could be wiped out, it says. "Many populations are faced with imminent extinction," said Matthew Woods, of the UN-run Great Apes Survival Project. "It is incredibly serious."

Conservationists have added a new danger to the ever-present threats from hunting, logging and mining: the fallout from elections to be held at the end of this month in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the vast central African nation which is probably home to more gorillas than any other country.

One sub-species, the eastern lowland, or Grauer's gorilla, lives entirely within its borders. Two others, the mountain gorilla - famous from Dian Fossey's studies and David Attenborough's filmed encounter with them - and the western lowland gorilla, are also found in the DRC.

War has raged within eastern Congo for more than a decade, killing more than four million people in the bloodiest conflict since the First World War. Even now, three years after peace deals were signed, 1,200 people die each day from the continuing violence and war-related diseases. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the fighting as militia groups rampage through the countryside, raping and pillaging in towns and villages.

One side effect of the conflict has been the devastating impact on the region's gorillas. Refugees unable to grow enough crops to feed themselves have been forced to kill gorillas and other large mammals in order to survive. Conservationists have not only been powerless to protect the animals, with surveys of the remaining gorilla population and other preservation work proving impossible, but several workers have been killed after they were caught up in militia fighting.

The result, in the case of the Grauer's sub-species, is that its numbers are believed to have plummeted by 90 per cent over the past 10 years to just 2,000. Some conservationists believe that the situation is even worse, but violence has prevented them confirming their suspicions.

The most threatened sub-species of all is the Cross River gorilla, which inhabits a tiny forested area of west Africa, but the key to the survival of the rest is thought to be the DRC election, the first in the war-torn country for more than 40 years.

Conservationists believe that only a successful outcome to the election can curb the violence and instability, particularly in the country's eastern districts of Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu, that have decimated gorilla populations.

"The insecurity threatens the animals and the conservation workers, and it prevents tourism, which is seen by many as the salvation of the apes in this area," said Ian Redmond, chief consultant at the Great Apes Survival Project.

Although there are some fears that an end to the fighting could bring an increase in logging, which would further eat away at the gorillas' natural habitat, the risks of continued anarchy are considered to be greater.

In a region where vast swathes of the population live on less than £1 a day, great apes have proved to be an enormous economic asset.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has claimed that more than half of the country's foreign exchange earnings are from tourism, in which mountain gorillas are the star attraction. A recent United Nations Environment Programme report on the state of Africa's environment estimated that gorilla tourism brings in roughly $20m (£11m) a year to Uganda and Rwanda, where Western tourists are being lured back with some success after the horrors of the 1994 genocide. There is no immediate prospect, however, of persuading tourists to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo, despite the spectacular scenery of its eastern border country, which is home to mountain and Grauer's gorillas. But Mr Redmond added that the election at least offered some prospect of stability, "and the return to those days of gorilla tourism".

People who had lived through the crisis in DRC remembered what it was like when there were queues of tourists, the conservationist added. "There is a lot of potential... It all depends on political stability. Hopefully there will be enough great apes left."

Species at risk: Only thousands remain in all

Grauer's Gorilla

Also known as eastern lowland gorilla. Forms eastern group with mountain gorilla.

Distribution: Eastern DRC forests. Now inhabits just 13 per cent of its historic range.

How vulnerable: Its habitat is chronically war-torn, and Grauer's gorillas have suffered worst from hunting for "bush meat".

How many left: Estimates vary wildly, from as many as 16,000 to 2,000 or fewer.

Mountain Gorilla

The best-known sub-species, thanks to David Attenborough and the movie Gorillas in the Mist, based on the story of the scientist Dian Fossey.

Distribution: Virunga range of volcanoes on Uganda-Rwanda-DRC border and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.

How vulnerable: Susceptible to a number of threats, from uncontrolled hunting and war to disease, destruction of forest habitat and capture for the illegal pet trade. Considered critically endangered.

How many left: A little over 700.

Western Lowland Gorilla

The most numerous and widespread. All the gorillas in zoos are from this sub-species.

Distribution: Thick rainforests of Gabon and five neighbouring countries. Now inhabits just over half of its former range.

How vulnerable: Suffers from disease and at the hands of poachers. In areas hard hit by the Ebola virus, over 90 per cent have died.

How many left: Estimate of 94,000, though may be higher due to difficulty of surveying habitat.

Cross River Gorilla

The other sub-species in the western group. Differs from western lowland gorilla in skull and tooth dimensions.

Distribution: Eight small and isolated populations, separated by densely settled farmlands, in forested hills on the Nigeria-Cameroon border.

How vulnerable: Rated critically endangered.

How many left: About 200.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Team Leader

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you want to work for a Compa...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you want to work for a Compa...

Recruitment Genius: HR Advisor

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an innovative a...

Recruitment Genius: Production Technician

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Production Technician is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower