The first-known camera-trap images of a group of Cross River gorillas with a number of infants of different ages, have been released by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WSC). The photographs have understandably generated a lot of excitement among Cross River gorilla conservation stakeholders.
The images were captured in the Mbe Mountains in Nigeria. About 50 cameras were set up in 2012 and multiple images have been captured in Cameroon’s Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary and in Nigeria’s Mbe Mountains community forest and Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary. But Cross River gorillas are notoriously difficult to capture together on camera and no images had captured multiple infants.
Cross River gorillas (Gorilla Gorilla diehli) are the most endangered gorilla subspecies, numbering only around 300 individuals and found only in an isolated region along the Nigeria/Cameroon border.
It is on record that Cross River gorillas are rarely seen, let alone photographed, even by remote cameras. Previously, camera traps at WCS sites in Cameroon and Nigeria have captured just a few images including one from 2012 in Cameroon’s Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary showing one member of the group missing a hand likely from snare injury.
These recent images are the first time that multiple of infants have been recorded in the same group. Recall that in 2013, in the Mbe Mountains and Afi Mountains in Nigeria, camera traps photographed a mother carrying a single infant on her back and lone silverbacks on separate occasions.
Extremely shy of humans due to a long history of persecution, Cross River gorillas live in the most rugged and inaccessible parts of their range. Their presence can be detected mainly by indirect signs such as nests, dung and feeding trails.
They are distributed patchily over a mountainous, forested landscape spanning some 12,000 square kilometers across the trans-boundary region of Cross River Nigeria and Takmanda-Mone Cameroon.
Once presumed extinct in Nigeria and only “rediscovered” in the late 1980’s, approximately 100 Cross River gorillas live in Nigeria in three contiguous sites in Cross River State – the Okwangwo Division of Cross River National Park (Okwangwo), Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mbe Mountains community forest.
The Mbe Mountains forest, which is home to about a third of the Nigeria gorilla population, and provide an important link between Afi Mountain and Okwangwo, have been managed jointly by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Conservation Association of the Mbe Mountains as a community wildlife sanctuary since 2005.
A team of 16 eco-guards recruited from the surrounding communities, trained and employed by WCS conducts daily law enforcement patrols of the sanctuary to protect gorillas and other wildlife. In addition to protection, WCS works with the local communities to raise awareness of conservation and improve livelihoods.
Inaoyom Imong, Director of WCS Nigeria’s Cross River Landscape said: “It is extremely exciting to see so many young Cross River gorillas – an encouraging indication that these gorillas are now well protected and reproducing successfully, after previous decades of hunting. While hunters in the region may no longer target gorillas, the threat of hunting remains, and we need to continue to improve the effectiveness of our protection efforts.”
Professor John Oates, lead author of the first Cross River gorilla action plan in 2007 said: “It is wonderful to see images of gorillas from the Mbe Mountains that show so many young animals, indicating that the population there is in good health.
“Back in the early 1970s it was widely thought that gorillas were extinct in Nigeria, but work subsequently initiated by the Cross River State Government, and later supported and expanded by WCS and local communities, has clearly held the line and given hope for the long-term survival of these primates.”
WCS works to protect Cross River gorillas at additional sites in Nigeria, working with local communities and in cooperation with the Cross River State Government in Afi Mountain and the Nigeria National Park Service in Okwangwo.
With the outbreak of COVID-19 in Nigeria in February 2020, outreach and livelihood support work with local communities have been temporarily suspended but wildlife protection patrols have continued, in line with WCS’s COVID-19 response country action plan, to provide continued effective protection for the gorillas.
WCS is also working in the neighboring Cameroon section of the transboundary area, to protect Cross River gorillas and support management of Takamanda National Park, Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary, Mone River Forest Reserve, Mbulu and Mawambi Hills in cooperation with the Government of Cameroon and local communities.
Despite the ongoing political and armed conflict in Cameroon, WCS continues to monitor and protect the gorillas with local partners and is working to secure and re-establish field conservation programs as security permits.
Success recorded in the Mbe Mountains is largely attributable to the strong support and commitment of our local community partners.
Reacting to seeing the gorilla images, the head chief of one of the surrounding villages (Kanyang I), Otu Gabriel Ocha said: “I am very happy to see these wonderful pictures of Cross River gorillas with many babies in our forest. This shows that our conservation efforts in partnership with WCS are yielding fruits. I hope that we can continue these efforts so that we can pass the heritage to future generations.”
Chief Damian Aria, Village Head of Wula I, said: “Seeing these photos of Cross River gorillas with many infants makes me very happy because they tell me that the population is increasing. I feel honored to be part of the efforts that are producing these results and I commend WCS for their support to protect the natural resources God has blessed us with.”
Otu Bernard A. Eban, Clan Head of Abo Clan, said: “Seeing this today rekindles my hope that our communities will benefit from ecotourism in the future. We will further strengthen our local laws to protect Cross River gorillas in the Mbe Mountains. I wish to take this opportunity to appeal to our partners to support us more to find sustainable economic alternatives to bushmeat hunting and other activities that destroy our forest.”
WCS’s conservation activities with local partners to protect Cross River gorillas in the Mbe Mountains and other sites in Nigeria and across the border in Cameroon, have been supported over the years by donors including the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Arcus Foundation, Darwin Initiative, Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), Rainforest Trust, UNEP GRASP, North Carolina Zoo, Berggorilla and Regenwald Direkthilfe, Kolmarden Foundation, Palmyre Zoo, Paignton Zoo, AZA SAFE Granting Program, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, EAZA Ape Conservation Fund, Zoo New England.