By Henry Umahi
The evolution theory claims that humans, chimpanzees and gorillas shared a common ancestor. But whether the ancient ancestor theory is right or not, what is not in contest is that gorillas are similar to humans in several ways.
To further push the family tree comparison, Chris Tyler-Smith, a geneticist, said: “The big picture is that we’re perhaps 98 per cent identical in our sequences to gorillas. So that means most of our genes are very similar, or even identical, to the gorilla version of the same gene.”
Someone else said: “These great, glorious, fur-coated apes are some of our closest relatives.
“Gorillas are gentle giants and display many human-like behaviours and emotions, such as laughter and sadness. In fact, gorillas share 98.3 per cent of their genetic code with humans, making them our closest cousins after chimpanzees and bonobos.
“Like humans, gorillas reproduce slowly, giving birth to only one baby at a time and then raising that infant for several years before giving birth again.”
Despite the similarities, humans constitute the greatest threat to gorillas. Put differently, human activities are causing a dangerous decline in the population of gorillas. In fact, scientists say they are “critically endangered.”
As human population increases, the demand of man on earth’s resources also grows. Humans need more food and space, thereby destroying the habitat of gorillas and other ecosystems. Some communities, especially in Africa, depend on the forest as source of livelihood.
It is estimated that Nigeria has the Cross River gorilla, which lives in the mountainous border area between Nigeria and Cameroon. It is Africa’s most threatened ape, with a population estimated at fewer than 300 individuals. Around 100 live in Nigeria and are found only in three protected areas in Cross River State: Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, Mbe Mountains, and the Okwangwo division of Cross River National Park.
Indeed, bushmeat hunting, logging, expansion of settlements, and agricultural encroachment continue to jeopardize the survival of the critically endangered Cross River gorilla. Although the gorillas might not be directly targeted by hunters — the great apes mostly inhabit the rugged mountains that are not easily accessible — the wide use of wire snares to capture smaller mammals like rock hyrax and porcupine poses a significant danger to their survival.
Inaoyom Imong, director, Cross River Landscape for Wildlife Conservative Society (WCS), agrees that the popular Cross River gorillas are going into extinction.
“Nigeria has already lost some species of rhinoceros, giraffes and wild dogs that are part of the nation’s wildlife but are no longer here, including plants that are also threatened.
“Due to a high rate of deforestation in Nigeria, the nation has lost quite a bit of its original forest cover.
“What is left now is probably about 10 per cent of which a substantial part is in the Cross River National Park and other protected areas.
“I don’t think it is so much a question of legislation to protect our wildlife because Nigeria already has quite a number of relevant laws, the problem is the enforcement of these laws,” he told NAN.
He said Nigerians must be conscious of their environment and seek ways to conserve it for the benefit of present and future generations.
Dr. Mark Ofua, a vetenarian and WildAid Nigeria representative, explained the danger facing gorillas thus: “World Gorilla Day is a day set apart to celebrate the iconic gorilla. It encourages global communities to take action for gorilla conservation. World Gorilla Day creates the opportunity for people all over the world to come together in celebrating gorillas and, more importantly, take action to protect gorillas in the wild.
“We have gorillas here in Nigeria and, very interestingly, we have a species of gorillas unique to Nigeria. It is known as the Cross River gorilla and it is found in the highlands of the Cross River forests and Cameroon where it shares a border with.
“Sadly, these unique Nigerian gorillas are classified as critically endangered on the IUCN red list. With less than 100 individuals left, we are one step away from losing these iconic species forever to extinction, if we don’t take drastic measures to conserve what we have left.
“Habitat loss due to illegal logging, deforestation and farmland expansion remain the biggest threat to the survival of these species. Then these illegal logging routes open up pathways for hunters and poachers to reach these animals. Bushmeat trade and consumption is the second factor driving the extinction of these massive apes, with the illegal pet trade that sees to wanton destruction of whole gorilla families to get to their young coming at a close third. Snares and traps set for other wildlife are not discriminatory and contribute to decimating our gorillas. Farmer-wildlife conflicts with gorillas raiding farms of local communities also end with the setting of traps and poisoned baits to deter such activities resulting in a rapid decline of these animals that reproduce so slowly, with a female gorilla producing just about four offspring in her lifetime.”
On the benefits of conserving gorillas, he said: “Gorillas play a key role in keeping the forests alive and healthy. Gorillas live in the Congo basin, the second-largest tropical rainforest left on earth, a forest that plays a critical role in our fight against climate change. It acts as the ‘lungs of the planet,’ cleaning the air of the carbon dioxide that leads to climate change and giving back oxygen in exchange. They keep the forests rejuvenated by ensuring seed dispersal that certain plants rely on solely for propagation, feeding, and nesting activities letting in light to the forest floor and shaping plant communities and diversity.
“As an umbrella species, the conservation of gorillas will automatically ensure the survival of other wildlife, including endangered species found in its region. Chimpanzees, pangolins, etcetera, get protected in the same fell swoop.
“Tourism and subsequent development of local communities housing these gorillas is another reason we must protect our gorillas. Other countries with good conservation and tourist framework are reaping huge profits in foreign exchange from tourism. A one-hour walk in the forests to see these animals in Rwanda can cost up to $1,500 per person with associated costs for the park almost nil! It will interest you to note that these tours are fully booked for months in advance.
“We share about 98.3 per cent of our DNA with gorillas and this has been useful in comparative studies.”
On what can be done to protect gorillas in Nigeria, Ofua said: “The survival of these gorillas ensures the survival of the forests that we so depend on.
“Celebrating World Gorilla Day for Nigeria is a call to action. A clarion call to all and sundry to join hands in the fight to save our iconic national heritage from extinction. We must sound the alarm and reverberate it until we all arise to our responsibilities.
“Education and re-education must go on to drive to the fore the benefits to be derived from the conservation of our gorillas. Uncontrolled and unsupervised hunting and use of snares must be stopped. Illegal poaching and illegal logging must be stopped post haste.
“The government must step to its responsibility of making necessary laws and be committed to its enforcement to give the gorillas a chance to bounce back to healthy numbers. Public enlightenment is also most necessary.”
Mr. Kelechukwu Iruoma, WildAid Nigeria representative, added: “It is not too late to save Nigeria’s remaining 100 Cross River gorillas but we need to act now to protect them. All stakeholders must come together to contribute their quote in restoring our gorilla population. This is why WildAid is engaging in media campaigns to raise awareness of the threats facing gorillas in Nigeria with a view to enlightening and sensitising Nigerians on the need to protect our iconic gorillas.”