Only one out of four sub-species of gorillas —western lowland— live in United States zoos. But the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and its members are profoundly aware of and concerned about the other three sub-species: Grauer’s, Cross-River, and mountain.
Worldwide, there are about 361,900 western lowland, 1,000 mountain, 1,500 Grauer’s, and 300 Cross River gorillas.
“AZA members have historically provided great support for gorilla conservation in a variety of projects,” said Colleen McCann, curator for mammals for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York, N.Y. The question in developing the SAFE gorilla program in 2019 was “how do we take that great support from our AZA members and provide a strategic program that would be more effective at supporting gorillas in the wild, based on their highest needs?”
For these reasons, SAFE gorilla focused on the two most endangered sub-species, Grauer’s and Cross River. Members have now completed the first three years of the SAFE program and are looking toward the next three years.
SAFE gorilla has grown over three years from five to 13 members, which has exceeded expectations, said Kristen Lukas, director of conservation and science at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Cleveland, Ohio. It also has raised public awareness, primarily through an initiative tying cell phones, gorillas, and recycling together.
Protecting gorillas in the wild is expensive and dangerous but that hasn’t stopped experts at AZA-accredited facilities engaging with the important work to save these iconic animals. North Carolina Zoo has collaborated closely with WCS and its staff work on the ground providing training in monitoring technologies while staff from Cleveland Zoo regularly travel to Rwanda and serve as instructors for educational programs.
In addition to field work, a great way to support these programs, McCann said, is to provide money for salaries, training, vehicles, and equipment to track and survey the gorillas, something that takes millions of dollars a year.
“Zoos individually have been working on a lot of programs,” said Rich Bergl, director of conservation, education, and science at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C. “One of our biggest hurdles was how to focus on the SAFE gorilla program while recognizing that all the work individual zoos are doing is valuable and that we didn’t want to dilute those efforts.
“We aren’t trying to get people to shift their spending from one project to another, we are trying to get them to increase their support for gorilla conservation through contributions to SAFE program priorities,” he said.
Lukas noted that since 2013, AZA zoos have reported investing more than $14 million in gorilla conservation.
One example of the many needs: the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary in Nigeria, where most of the Cross-River gorillas live. The sanctuary was poorly funded and neglected for years, said Inaoyom Imong, director of WCS Nigeria’s Cross River Landscape, which includes Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary. “The rangers were not regularly paid and lacked training and basic field equipment, such as uniforms, boots, tents, rucksacks, and first-aid kits for anti-poaching patrols.”
As a result, Imong said, hunting, farm encroachment, and illegal logging were widespread around the fringes of the sanctuary.
SAFE gorilla funding went directly to supporting WCS Nigeria in recruiting and training 30 park rangers in anti-poaching surveys and law enforcement. It also funded remote cameras in protected areas across the border of Nigeria and Cameroon.
Cross River gorillas are so scarce that it’s impossible to count them by sight; rather rangers rely on camera traps, fecal samples, and nests. Bergl said he spent two years in the forest collecting samples, and in that time saw a gorilla only three times.
“But there is evidence over the years based in part on the work we’ve done that protection efforts are increasing and there has been very little poaching,” he added. The camera traps have also shown that the gorillas are breeding.
In 2021, the Cross River state government and WCS Nigeria signed a Memorandum of Understanding to provide better protection for the gorillas that inhabit Afi and Mbe mountains.
Protecting Grauer’s gorillas in areas of the Congo is also a tremendous undertaking. Tara Stoinski, president and chief scientific officer of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, said, far more trackers—who monitor gorillas and biodiversity, as well as remove snares that threaten gorillas and other animals from the forest—are needed. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is both a member of SAFE gorilla and a recipient of its funds.
“We have roughly three trackers per 100 square kilometers working at our site in Congo,” she said. “In contrast, mountain gorillas have 50 trackers per 100 square kilometers. This increased investment is directly related to why mountain gorillas are increasing in the wild.”
As with many conservation projects, however, any efforts will ultimately fail unless the needs of the people who live in the area are addressed.
“No conservation effort will be successful if it’s just about protection and law enforcement,” said Bergl. Also needed is widespread education and development of alternative livelihoods for people who would otherwise depend on forest resources, which include gorillas and other endangered species.
“If we’re asking local communities to take pride in this species, what can we do to help protect their livelihood?” said McCann. “That means actively working with farmers on sustainability and ways to increase production.” That includes specifically working with women’s groups, because women do much of the farming in such areas, she added
To lessen reliance on hunting Grauer’s gorillas and other wildlife, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund has helped set up fish farms and breadmaking cooperatives, conducted educational outreach including paying school fees, and other initiatives, Stoinski said.
In addition to raising money, SAFE gorilla focuses on public awareness of the plight of gorillas, in particular Grauer’s and Cross River through various campaigns. Gorillas on the Line, launched in 2019 is an innovative program that both raises money for gorilla conservation and helps in recycling old cell phone parts.
It works this way: the mineral coltan is used to manufacture cell phones, tablets, and other similar devices. The mineral is mined by hand in various places, including the Congo. This mining, along with other human-caused impacts, such as deforestation, has led to diminished habitat.
Through SAFE gorilla, individual zoos organize local schools, businesses or other organizations to collect old cell phones and bring them to the zoo, which sends them Eco-Cell, a SAFE gorilla partner organization. Funds raised through this initiative go to gorilla conservation, said Lukas.
In addition, by recycling phones and other small electronics that contain coltan, the demand for the mineral is reduced and potentially harmful substances are kept out of landfills. Eco-Cell pays either for reselling the phones or the metal used in the phones.
“Right now, 30 zoos are participating,” said Lukas.
In the first four years of the Gorillas on the Line campaign, AZA facilities have collected 40,438 devices and raised $19,958 for conservation.
“That makes a connection between what you have in your hand and wildlife around the world,” said Lukas.
World Gorilla Day, on 24 September, is also a key time to highlight SAFE gorilla’s efforts.
Over the next three years, the goal is to continue to increase membership in SAFE gorilla. Lukas noted of the 48 U.S. zoos that house gorillas, 11 of those are members of the SAFE program and another nine report contributing significantly to other gorilla conservation efforts outside of SAFE.
“That means there’s another 28 we’re looking to bring on board,” she said.
Each member is asked to contribute $5,000 per year for three years, but if that is not possible, Lukas said, “we’re asking for the equivalent in time, such as a staff member willing to develop our website, social media content, or organize a Gorillas on the Line campaign.
Stoinski said that although zoos represent only about four to five percent of the funding her organization receives, they are an important asset. Zoos “have the ability to tell the story of what’s happening to gorillas. Most people probably don’t realize how at risk they are.”
Zoos have “so many incredibly dedicated professionals that have something to offer conservation, and they don’t realize it yet. They may not be in charge of their zoo’s conservation budget, or they may not be able to make decisions around increasing their financial support, but they are eager to get involved and contribute however they can,” she said. “I think initially, we were so focused on the financial side of it, like, how are we going to raise as much money as possible? And one thing we’ve learned over the last few years is that it’s the public engagement, it’s the people that are really going to ensure the long-term protection of species like gorillas.”
Hero Photo Credit: ©Nicky Lancester
Alina Tugend is a writer based in Larchmont, N.Y.