A project spearheaded by Bristol Zoological Society has snapped wild western lowland gorillas in Equatorial Guinea for the first time in more than a decade.
Conservationists from the Society and the University of West of England (UWE Bristol) caught the young gorillas in their natural habitat.
Dr Gráinne McCabe, Head of Conservation and Field Science at Bristol Zoological Society, is one of the conservationists leading the project and she said:
“We were so excited when we saw the images. One of our assistants let out a shout when he opened the first photo of the gorilla.
“While local people had reported seeing the animals around the villages from time to time, we hadn’t been able to catch sight of one yet, suggesting their numbers in the park might be low, and researchers haven’t been working in this area for over 10 years.
“To see these animals in real life would be magical, but this is the next best thing, and so this is truly special – certainly a career highlight.”
Dr McCabe also spoke of her excitement at capturing gorillas thought to be around four years old, as it shows a new booming generation.
“It is a huge milestone for the project as it confirms their existence here, despite heavy hunting pressure in this forest.”
The population of gorillas in the Monte Alen National Park in Equatorial New Guinea - where they were sighted - is vital, as they are listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List.
In 2005, it was estimated that around 2,000 western lowland gorillas lived in this area, though current numbers are unknown.
(The numbers of the gorillas living in the area are unknown. Picture credits: Bristol Zoo)
Dr McCabe said:
“Levels of poaching in the park are very high and so we have always been very concerned that they are at risk of being hunted into extinction in this area.”
“We will be able to work alongside the national park to find areas where patrols should be targeted to prevent poaching for example.
Eventually, if poaching can be controlled, we may be able to help bring back eco-tourism to the area.”
(Dr McGabe has described the pictures as a 'career highlight'. Picture credits: Bristol Zoo)
Bristol Zoological Society’s field team, led by post-doctoral research associate Dr Patrick McLaughlin, is currently in Equatorial Guinea putting up more cameras, with thirty expected to be in place across the national park range by Easter.
Dr David Fernández, a primate behavioural ecologist and conservation biologist at UWE Bristol, co-leads the project.
“We will use the data from these to establish population size and location across the park, along with surveys, to investigate for signs of poaching, by the presence of shotgun shells for example.
"We will use this information to establish how best we can work with the national park authorities in the area.”
The dwindling population of the gorillas is reflected across five other African countries - Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo and Gabon.
Exact figures of animals left are unknown, due to the difficulty in tracking the animals through dense and remote rainforests in Africa.
Estimates suggest around 360,000 and scientists have predicted a decline of over 60 per cent in number in the last 25 years.
Bristol Zoological Society and UWE Bristol are working with The Biodiversity Initiative – a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) focused on creating an inventory of the wildlife of Equatorial Guinea.
The Society have been focused on ape conservation in Central Africa since 2003.
Bristol Zoological Society participates in a conservation breeding programme for western lowland gorillas, with the aim of supporting the critically endangered species.
A family group of seven western lowland gorillas live at Bristol Zoo Gardens, and two baby gorillas have been born there since 2016.