Western lowland gorillas, found only in central Africa, are now classified as Critically Endangered with their populations being decimated by habitat loss, disease and hunting.
As human populations grow and rainforests shrink, conservation becomes a complicated balancing act. For hundreds of thousands of years, the forest has supplied the needs – including food and medicine – of the people who live there.
Local people rely on the animals of the forest for meat and hunt a variety of species known collectively as bushmeat. Without bushmeat, their diet would be short of protein. Eating bushmeat is just like eating wild salmon or wild rabbit – it’s just that the animals are different.
In recent years, bushmeat hunting has seen a commercial increase that has reached an unsustainable level. More efficient hunting techniques combined with improved access to forest areas via roads built for the logging and mining industry means many species can’t reproduce fast enough to recover from what is now increasingly commercial hunting. Although not all local people eat gorilla meat, many have a high regard for it which means the trade in gorillas is a major threat to their survival – their meat has even been found in markets here in London as part of the burgeoning international bushmeat trade.
Bushmeat is a complex topic. While it is illegal to hunt endangered species and to hunt in protected areas, the lack of capacity to enforce these laws often means that even where the forests themselves are being protected, they are being emptied of their animals. There are also ethical questions to reconcile when working in this environment. Is it right to stop people driven by poverty and hunger from hunting to feed their families?
ZSL researchers are trying to understand the problem by exploring the scale and sustainability of the bushmeat trade and the dependency of people on bushmeat for both food and income, in order to find solutions that work for both people and wildlife.
ZSL's Africa Conservation Programme has a number of field projects including one in the heart of central Africa, at Mikongo Conservation Centre in Gabon, which has part of its focus on the western lowland gorilla. ZSL has worked with local people there to try and develop low impact tourism based on viewing of forest wildlife, the idea being to provide a sustainable source of income for both park management and local community development. The project also monitors the health of the wild gorillas as well as the local people, tourists and project staff who may come into contact with the gorillas, in order to minimise the risks of transmission of disease. Behind bushmeat hunting, disease - in particular lethal Ebola epidemics - is the biggest threat to the survival of western lowland gorillas in the wild.
A second project in the Africa Conservation Programme is working with the Congolese park authorities in Virunga National Park, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, to support the conservation of its wildlife, which includes the rare mountain gorilla in the south of the park and a population of eastern lowland gorillas in the north.