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Ethical dilemmas in the wild

baby gorilla

Baby gorilla sales point to larger conservation issue

In this story: April 1, 1997
Web posted at: 6:11 p.m. EST (2311 GMT)

An essay from Correspondent Gary Strieker

EASTERN CAMEROON (CNN) -- Looking back on my journey through the Central African rain forest, there are lingering memories: near disasters with falling trees, the beat of a dying aboriginal culture, and a baby gorilla we found in a village on a logging road.

The young primate, weakened by hunger and tormented by its human captors, was another tiny casualty in the growing commercial trade in the meat of wild animals.

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  • The baby was on orphan, its mother shot by a hunter the previous week. We found an adult male gorilla on the same road only a few hours earlier, ready to be smoked and sold on the market.

    Gorillas and chimpanzees may be closely related to us, but people here have always regarded them as food.

    Now, with a growing number of timber companies punching new roads into the deep forest, hunters find it much easier to track down the apes and kill them. Then they capture the babies and sell them as pets.

    In one village, I faced a difficult choice when the man with the baby gorilla offered to sell it to me.

    Rescue center's value questioned


    Some people who buy orphaned apes bring them to the Wildlife Rescue Center at the Limbe Zoo in Cameroon.

    If they get enough donations, volunteers at the center will establish sanctuaries for chimps and gorillas to live in a semi-wild state. The animals could never survive in the wild forest.

    The people at the center get many offers, but I was told they never buy baby apes from anyone, instead preferring that people donate the animals.

    A few gorillas are saved at the center. But in the forest their numbers continue to dwindle -- and some say rescue projects like the Limbe Zoo's only distract from the real problem.

    "It is emotional, and it takes one or two species such as gorillas and chips and it gives the illusion they're actually doing something to protect these animals," says Steve Gartlan of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

    Forest to give way to people

    The only way to truly protect them, I was told, is to protect the forest where they live. And to do that, we must face a reality that many conservationists do not yet seem to accept.

    Central Africa's human population will double in the next 20 years, and most of the forest will be consumed for fuel wood and timber exports. Most of its animals will be eaten.

    Reality means some of the forest and wildlife can still be saved if conservationists lower their expectations, stop wasting efforts on lost causes and focus their attention instead on achievable goals -- like establishing well- protected sanctuaries covering just 10 percent of the forest.

    Conservation realists say there's no room for sentimentality in the rain forest, that the demands of human populations in Africa will overwhelm any attempt to protect most of the rainforest from destruction.

    By trying to save everything, they argue, conservationists would eventually lose it all.

    A realist's choice isn't easy

    I'm now a realist, accepting that most of the wild animals in the forest along the roads we've traveled will probably disappear in the next decade -- and accepting that, I could not buy that baby gorilla.

    To do so would have encouraged the hunter to go out and capture another -- and this one was already too traumatized to survived much longer.

    I'm a realist, but I still wonder if I did the right thing.


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