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The outlook for eastern Africa's mountain gorillas is growing brighter, as a recent census released on Dec. 16 shows that the subspecies' numbers have risen since 2011. Scientists believe there are now at least 1,063 mountain gorillas living in the wild.
First, the good news. Collaborative conservation efforts have brought "renewed hope" for mountain gorillas and two large whale species, according to today's update from the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
The mountain gorilla subspecies moved from "critically endangered" to "endangered" due to anti-poaching patrols and veterinary interventions. In 2008, their population dropped to as low as 680 individuals––but the new estimates reveal that the number of mountain gorillas has increased to more than 1,000 individuals—the highest figure ever recorded for the eastern gorilla subspecies, the IUCN said.
"Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy. She was beloved and will be deeply missed," the foundation said in a press release.
Munganga Nzonga Jacques, 26, died Oct. 4 in an area in the Tshivanga region of the park, an area previously believed to be safe for the gorillas, showing the dangers conservationists face in unstable regions, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) said.
Jacques is the second ranger to be killed in the park in the last six months. Rebel groups shot and killed park ranger Oscar Byamungu Mianziro back in March.
Park rangers carrying out an anti-poaching patrol in Kahuzi-Biega National Park.A.J.Plumptre / WCS
"We are very concerned about these increased threats to the rangers and their families, and to the protection of these animals," Andrew Plumptre, WCS senior conservation scientist for Africa, said in a statement.
Grauer's gorilla—a subspecies of eastern gorilla, the world's largest ape—are confined to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. They were listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species back in September after their population dropped 77 percent.
In 1998, it was estimated that 17,000 Grauer's gorillas lived in the forests of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Now, fewer than 3,800 of these gorillas still live in the wild, according to a report from the WCS, Flora and Fauna International and the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature.
The main cause of the decline is hunting for bushmeat and civil unrest, which is taking place around villages and mining camps that have been established by armed groups deep in the forests in eastern DR Congo.
"The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has led to the wide availability of arms and created a plethora of militia groups who control different territories in the east of the country," Andrew Plumptre, senior conservation scientist for the WCS Africa Program, told PLoS One. "This has been terrible for conservation of its wildlife."
The London Zoo was placed on lockdown Thursday after a 400-pound adult western lowland silverback gorilla escaped from his enclosure around 5:15 p.m. local time.
Visitors at the Gorilla Kingdom exhibit were given quite a scare when the 18-year-old silverback, Kumbuka, began smashing his way out of the enclosure—a few seconds of which was caught on video.
Some visitors were ushered into indoor areas where they could be kept safe and others were evacuated while Gorilla Kingdom staff and police searched for Kumbuka.
Malcolm Fitzpatrick, curator of mammals at the zoo, told The Guardian Kumbuka's escape was a "minor incident" and that he got into a secure keeper area that was not open to the public. He was tranquilized around 7 p.m. and returned to the Gorilla Kingdom where he was given extra treats and was interacting with the rest of his family.
"At no time were any of our visitors in any danger," Fitzpatrick said. "The gorilla did not get out of the safe space, there were only about 100 visitors, it was the end of the day and I would like to thank all of those visitors for co-operating and moving into buildings."
The zoo is launching a full investigation into how Kumbuka got out of his enclosure, but sources say that the cage door to the gorilla's enclosure was left open. "Every enclosure has a gated area which is off-limits to the public to stop animals running straight past when the door is opened," the source told The Telegraph. "That door shouldn't have been left open."
"While we are relieved that this incident apparently ended without injury to visitors or to Kumbuka, it is yet another startling reminder of the risks associated with maintaining dangerous wild animals in captivity," Chris Draper, associate director for Animal Welfare and Care at the Born Free Foundation, said. "This incident could have ended very differently."
When the escape occurred, the Born Free Foundation said it was already investigating "unconfirmed reports from a BBC journalist of damage to the perimeter glass at the gorilla enclosure and of a previous near-escape involving the gorillas."
Born Free, which wants to see zoos phased out, is also calling on the government advisory committee on zoo issues to investigate the safety and welfare of great apes in UK zoos.
"How many more times does this sort of incident have to happen? How many times must people be put at serious risk before what Born Free has been saying for years is acknowledged? Zoos simply cannot guarantee the safety of their visitors and their animals," said Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation.