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'Mother Lode' Of Gorillas Found In Congo Forests

A map of the Republic of Congo lowland gorilla range.

Gorilla experts with the Wildlife Conservation Society say they've made a spectacular find in isolated forests of the Republic of Congo: a large group of previously undiscovered western lowland gorillas. The animals are critically endangered.

Researchers say the first wildlife census of the area has revealed that 125,000 western lowland gorillas are now thriving in the country's northern forests, a number that is twice some estimates for the worldwide population.

"We have found the mother lode of western lowland gorillas," said Steven Sanderson, president of the society, which led the research. "We had no idea that these great densities, that is numbers per square kilometer [of the gorillas], were possible in central Congo."

The discovery comes even as other gorillas living in central Africa are being pushed toward extinction.

Sanderson says there are few signs that the gorillas in Congo's northern forests have been affected by the problems that have all but wiped out gorilla populations in other parts of Africa — wars, commercial poaching, massive logging operations and disease epidemics linked in part to frequent contact with humans.

"Diseases — led by, but not limited to, the Ebola virus — have created big, empty holes in the forest where gorillas used to be but are no longer," Sanderson said.

One of the main reasons the gorillas have been thriving is obvious to anyone who's ever spent time in the swampy forests that make up what explorers like Richard Ruggiero of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sometimes call the "green abyss."

"You go into it, and it's a world unto itself," said Ruggiero, who wasn't involved in the current research but who has studied gorillas and elephants in central Africa for 15 years.

"These swamp environments are extremely difficult to get along in," Ruggiero said. "There's literally no place to pitch a tent and sleep."

And since there aren't any logging operations in the heart of these northern forests, Ruggiero said, roads are all but nonexistent. That, in turn, has led to low levels of poaching or subsistence hunting. Basically, there aren't many humans here, Ruggiero said.

But that's beginning to change. In recent years, the Republic of Congo has begun to sell the right to log the forests, Ruggiero said. In his view, the pressure to keep selling logging rights is at an all-time high — and it's getting higher.

"Where there are natural resources in Africa, the rush to exploit them is at a pace that no one ever dreamt possible," Ruggiero said.

"It's horrific, frankly. And the value of this announcement of this large population is, hopefully, people will realize that this is a chance to get there before the other guys do," Ruggiero said, referring to hunters and timber companies.

Ruggiero said he now hopes a plan is developed for managing the area's natural resources — a plan, he said, that doesn't include "leaving it up to people with chain saws and bulldozers."

Sanderson said there are ways to protect the gorillas in the "green abyss."

In recent years, his group has helped large logging operations in other parts of Congo learn to harvest trees sustainably and to limit poaching operations that rely on logging roads.

And the government of Congo is considering a plan to turn a big part of this forested area into a wildlife park, Sanderson said.

It'll be difficult and expensive to protect the newly discovered "mother lode," but Sanderson said he thinks it can be done.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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