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Gorillas on the Brink

Gorillas on the Brink
Gorillas on the Brink

Poaching, disease and loss of habitat threaten the existence of Africa's famed gorillas. And a new report from the United Nations Environmental Program - UNEP - says the threat is even greater than previously thought.

Few creatures in the wild captivate man as do gorillas. For those lucky enough to have seen them, it would be hard to imagine Africa's Congo without these gentle giants. However we may have no choice. By the mid-2020s, a new U-N and Interpol report says gorillas may disappear from the forests of the Congo Basin.

"We had done a report back in 2002 which was already fairly grim in terms of the predictions in terms of the extinction," says Amy Fraenkel, regional director of the U-N Environnmental Program. "But that is unfortunately very much trumped by the recent findings, which are that between - I'd say less than 10-15 years out from now, we could see extinction in large ranges of the species."

Fraenkel notes the report links the threat to gorillas to militias, and the continued fighting in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. "The biggest cause is an increase in illegal logging and harvesting of minerals in the area which in many cases are being used to directly finance militias, as you know it's a very war-torn area."

She adds that "illegal activity" also includes killing gorillas for bushmeat to feed the loggers and militia.

But the gorillas also face perhaps a more dangerous foe than man. A deadly disease that has wiped out entire populations of gorillas.

Gorillas on the Brink
Gorillas on the Brink

"If I were to rank them in what is now the most immediate threat, Ebola would be number one," says Allard Blom, with the World Wildlife Fund's Congo Basin Program. "It's very devastating to both gorillas and humans and gets transmitted between the species. So that is actually at the moment really wiping out a lot of gorillas in their areas where they are most protected. The biggest populations get hit by this virus. Basically, it's almost a hundred percent mortality rates in gorilla."

One bright spot: Blom says several ebola vaccines for humans are in development, which may also prevent the disease in apes.

The UNEP Interpol report contains several recommendations to counter the threat to gorillas. One key element, says Amy Fraenkel, is to stem the economic benefit of the illegal trade, inside and outside of Africa.

"And that is something we've been working on in many different aspects of environmental crime. In this case, it's training law enforcement officials and park rangers - and deploying and giving them the resources. It's truly a war and they need to be well equipped.

Gorillas on the Brink
Gorillas on the Brink

Allard Blom of the WWF agrees with report's recommendation. He adds that it is important to work with logging companies to help stem the illegal bushmeat trade -- and on that front, he says there is some good news.

"There is now over five million hectares of forest that is certified...and I can tell you from personal experience, 10-15 years ago, most logging companies were extremely hostile to conservation organizations. We were seen as the enemy and that has dramatically changed.

The UNEP - Interpol report was presented at a recent meeting of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.

You can watch all of Rebecca Ward's "Going Green" video reports here.