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THE BLOG

Our Endangered Great Ape Cousins, Section I - Gorillas: Animal Planet on the Looney Front, Part 1

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As international experts warn that over half the world's primates face extinction and, in their latest report, call for urgent action to protect humankind's closest living relatives, it's time to go apeshit and have another look at the magnificent gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos I've encountered on recent trips.

Mountain Gorillas

Among the most threatened are the mountain gorillas living in forests 8,000 to 13,000 feet up in the Virunga volcano range straddling Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda. Apes, you see, couldn't give a monkey's cuss about the political frontiers humans have enforced on Nature.

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As human overpopulation has overwhelmed the region, they've been pushed ever further out of their traditional territory, falling victim not only to habitat loss, but to human diseases and poachers, who kill the adults and sell the babies to zoos.

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Mountain gorilla habitat in green - from International Gorilla Conservation Programme

But thanks to conservation efforts, often embraced by local communities, the population has increased from an estimated 320 in 1997 to some 880 today.

In Rwanda the gorillas clamber the steep flanks of Karisimbi, Bisoke and Muhabura volcanoes in the northwest of the small country, not far from the town of Ruhengere. Trips to see them cost several hundred dollars and the hike to get to where spotters have located the apes can last anything from an hour to five hours over difficult terrain.

A look towards the mountain gorillas' habitat

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You're only allowed one hour once there and must keep three metres away to avoid communicating human diseases.

But the sight is unforgettable. A huge silver back alpha male patiently watches over his group of about a dozen. A mother holds her three-week old baby in the crook of her arm. The juveniles play and wrestle with each other.

Every now and then they stand and beat their little chests, as if on cue for casting in a role as King Kong Junior, then roll over or jump up on branches and bounce up and down till the branches break and they fall to the ground.

A look at mountains gorillas at rest and at play

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They totally ignore us except for a youngster who smacks one of our group's legs as he saunters past. They've become habituated to humans by the trackers who speak to them in their own grunts and other noises, so they don't hide in the vegetation as they would normally when humans approach.

Mother and Child

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And I fall in the vegetation only once.

Young ones at play

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Western Lowland Gorillas

These tend to be slightly smaller than their mountain cousins across the continent, inhabiting Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Angola, and DRC. They too are threatened, even if slightly less so, by the same factors endangering mountain gorillas.

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Sid, the lowland gorilla

I've never seen them fully in the wild but come face to face with Sid, 100 miles north of Brazzaville, capital of the former French Republic of Congo, at a rehabilitation project in the Lefini Forest Reserve.

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Western lowland gorilla range in blue; mountain gorilla and eastern lowland in violet - from Global Forest Watch

A massive 440-pound silver-back, first rescued after poachers killed his mother almost three decades ago, Sid is truly magnificent with a ginger fringe on his high ridged head, residing on a forested river island.

The habitat

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Every morning and afternoon he comes to a little wooden jetty on the bank, sitting quietly and waiting for the attendants to approach in a motor boat with extra food - this time bringing Yours Truly in tow. He pretends to look away nonchalantly, but scopes us out of the corner of his eye. He recognises the voices of the others as friends.

Sid

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But mine is new to him. He immediately jumps down from the jetty, rushes furiously back and forth along the shore (fortunately, they don't go into water), yanks violently at a rope tied to a pole near the boat, and with an all embracing sweep of his massive arm hurls reeds, mud and water in our direction.

I seem to have that effect on most living things. I shut up, and he eventually resumes his pose on the jetty, a massive King Kong, munching on roots and hauling up a crate of fruit in this jungle version of Fresh Direct food delivery.

More views of Sid

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A couple of dozen miles to the south, on the far bank of a jungle river, the Iboubikro nursery serves as a kindergarten for infant gorillas rescued after their parents were killed by poachers for bush meat or to kidnap the babies for sale. Attendants act as foster mothers in what, to all intents and purposes, is a pure natural habitat.

The little ones, aged between 2 and 3 ½, grab bottles of milk and thump their pectorals, miniature King Kongs again, doing various victory dances and generally having a grand old time rolling around. At full gorilla adolescence, about eight, they are reintroduced into the wild, miles away in the forest.

The nursery

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[Upcoming blog next Sunday: Animal Planet on the Looney Front moves to section II on the Great Apes - Chimpanzees and Bonobos]

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.