The newly discovered habitats are found along a hilly and forested stretch of the border between Cameroon and Nigeria. The remote area is already home to the only 300 surviving gorillas in Cross River, listed by conservationists as critically endangered.
Scientists from the North Carolina Zoo in the US and the World Conservation Society among others participated in the research. They used satellite imaging techniques to take high-resolution photographs of the Cross River region from which the apes derive their name.
The pictures enabled the researchers to demarcate the distribution of forests and also map out other types of land cover in the area. On the ground, field researchers trekked to over 400 control points to verify the accuracy of the satellite pictures. In most cases, it exceeded 90 percent.
Using other environmental data including the presence and proximity of human activity, the researchers drew up maps of gorilla habitats. Their findings revealed that the apes currently have more shelter than previously estimated. The scientists also found previously unknown passageways that enable the primates to move between habitats in search of mates.
Dr Richard Bergl is curator of conservation and research at the North Carolina Zoo. He’s been studying the Cross River Gorilla for over a decade.
"Our understanding of the gorilla," he said, "is based on research that’s only been going for about 20 years or so. My research has used analyses of satellite imagery to try to answer some questions of conservation relevance – specifically looking at how the gorillas move across the landscape and also at the distribution of habitat; looking at how much forest is left and how it’s connected."
Over the years, the Cross River Gorilla population has been plummeting. They reside in a region with a soaring number of people and use of forests, water and other natural resources. As a result, their habitats are frequently destroyed, while poachers hunt them for meat.
Apart from the North Carolina Zoo, the World Conservation Society has been partnering with the governments of Cameroon and Nigeria to create sanctuaries for the Cross River Gorillas in the border region.
Aaron Nicolas, a researcher with the World Conservation Society, says the newly discovered habitats will shape future conservation plans to ensure a better future for the gorillas.
"The relationship between the World Conservation Society and the North Carolina Zoo is really exciting," he said. "It’s something that is developing and growing all the time. We’re working very closely with Dr Richard Bergl and who’s answered a lot of key conservation questions for us which are helping us frame the actions that we’re putting in place in the field."
One such action is the development of the cyber-tracker, a handheld touchscreen device fitted with a GPS, or global positioning system antenna. It allows field workers to track the gorillas, entering data on their habitat which is automatically fed into a central system. The collected data is used to protect habitats, monitor the habits of the apes that are particularly wary of humans as well as keep track of poaching activities.
Officials of the Cameroon's Ministry of Forests and Wildlife and of Cross River National Park in Nigeria say the trackers will help improve law enforcement and ease data collection and analysis.
Dr Bergl says it's good news for all animals that need protected habitats.
"What’s really key at the moment," he said, "is to build controlled hunting grounds and to hang on to the remaining gorilla habitat in order to allow the gorilla population to grow. By protecting the Cross River Gorilla and their habitat, he said, you’re not only saving gorillas, but all the other wildlife and all the forests out there for the future."