Poaching for baby gorillas turns deadly
'World's total of all mountain gorillas is approximately 660 animals'
From Gary Strieker
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- In Central Africa, the last populations of mountain gorillas are threatened by a new outbreak of poaching, possibly the mastermind of an unknown sponsor with lots of money.
Since May, at least six of the rare apes have been shot and killed, alarming wildlife conservationists and prompting the expansion of anti-poaching patrols of an isolated gorilla preserve.
"We've not see anything like this in the last 20 years," said gorilla researcher Amy Vedder of the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo in New York.
Vedder has spent her life studying mountain gorillas and has played a major role in the campaign to save them. Despite prolonged and often bloody civil unrest in the region, the gorilla population has actually risen in recent years.
But poachers could still twist the conservation success story into tragedy.
"The world's total of all mountain gorillas is approximately 660 animals. It can't afford this kind of loss," Vedder said.
Wild mountain gorillas live only in the high-altitude forests of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many live in the Virunga mountains in a patchwork of national and international parks where the three countries meet.
In these cases, the animals were not killed for food. Poachers seem to have had another reason.
'Some kind of private menagerie'
"It appears that people are trying to capture a baby gorilla for sale somewhere. It would not be to any kind of reputable zoo," Vedder said.
"There are no mountain gorillas in captivity anywhere in the world legally. We assume this is for some kind of private menagerie or private collection of exotic animals somewhere hidden away in the world."
Wildlife investigators believe someone is offering a great deal of money for baby gorillas, which cannot be captured as long as adults in their family groups are alive to protect them.
Park rangers in Uganda recently captured several suspected poachers and found a live baby gorilla. Another baby gorilla might still be unaccounted for.
"There's one that we know of that's missing. One was intercepted. We are in the process of reintroducing it into the wild," said Dieter Steklis, chief scientific director of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.
The poachers are being questioned to find out who hired them.
"We don't have the results of the investigation yet. The men apprehended have been questioned by Rwandan authorities but we don't have any information yet," Steklis said.
Meanwhile, authorities in Uganda and Rwanda are re-doubling anti-poaching patrols in the mountainous national parks. Some gorilla family groups are under 24-hour surveillance.
Rangers return to danger zone
The Fossey fund, which continues the work of the late gorilla scientist Dian Fossey, is joining the efforts.
The Atlanta-based conservation group is helping Rwanda re-establish patrols in Karisoke, a remote camp founded by Fossey in the late 1960s to conduct field research.
The facilities are located in the heart of mountain gorilla territory, but haven't been used since the 1990s because of civil turmoil.
By setting up another permanent camp, rangers, including private ones hired and trained by the Fossey fund, can protect some of the most remote gorilla groups.
"Our rangers are probably some of the very best in the region if not all of Africa," said Steklis, who is also a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Steklis said that protecting the endangered great apes and their habitat helps ensure the preservation of mountainous territory with great biological diversity.
Moreover, the gorillas bring in ecotourists from around the world, generating millions of dollars to the cash-strapped economies of Central Africa.