With silverback males topping out at almost 500 pounds, Eastern lowland gorillas are the largest primates living today.
The only thing in the central African forest more daunting than these great apes is the loss of their rainforest habitat; unless, of course, you also consider the precipitous reduction of their numbers.
Having endured a war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, these peaceful vegetarians continue to be threatened by farming, poaching, and mining. A modern-day “gold rush” for ores used to make cell phones and laptops has accelerated the decline of gorillas and destruction of forest.
Eastern lowland, or Grauer’s, gorillas number between 5,000 and 10,000, down from a pre-war estimate of 17,000. They live on 25 percent less habitat than they did just a few decades ago.
There’s hope, however. It’s rooted in Congolese communities where traditional leaders are acting on a new vision. Community-initiated reserves are creating a vast new wildlife corridor between two national parks – Maiko and Kahuzi-Beiga – so the gorillas can move safely through the landscape.
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI), with support from Conservation International’s Global Conservation Fund and the United States Agency for International Development’s Central African Regional Program for the Environment through CI’s Central Africa Program, is supporting the creation and long-term protection of this landscape.
Both gorillas and people stand to benefit. Central to this homegrown conservation initiative are healthcare, education, and economic development programs in gorilla habitat.
“The biggest threat to the conservation of all this biodiversity is poverty,” says Clare Richardson, DFGFI president. “We have to help the people.”
Tayna, the Congo’s first community-based nature reserve, is the 90,200-hectare home to about 400 lowland gorillas. Already, there’s encouraging news from the field: In addition to documenting previously unidentified gorilla groups, local Tayna staff and DFGFI researchers have noted an almost complete eradication of hunting snares and mining operations.
Tayna’s success has inspired plans for seven more community-based reserves in a region that encompasses almost the entire range of the Eastern lowland gorilla. This collective is organized as the Union of Associations for Gorilla Conservation and Community Development in Eastern Democratic of Congo.
Each reserve will have a sacrosanct zone in the middle, Richardson explains; surrounding that, a regulated buffer area where community projects can occur; and around all of it, a managed zone allowing multiple activities.
This chain of communal reserves, flanked by the two national parks, will comprise a nearly 7-million-hectare corridor called the Maiko-Tayna Kahuzi-Biega Landscape.
“When you fly over, what immediately captures your attention is closed-canopy primary rainforest, Richardson says, “mile after mile of it.”
The benefits of maintaining this landscape extend far beyond the gorillas and local people. Healthy tropical forests play an important role in mitigating climate change by actively removing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide. The Maiko-Tayna Kahuzi-Biega Landscape is one of many projects supported by CI as part of the solution to combat global climate change.
Education and jobs built around conservation are the keys to sustaining a project that’s as immense as the creature it seeks to protect. The Tayna Center for Conservation Biology, a university at the heart of the landscape, has grown out of the community reserve movement.