Where Were They All This Time?

Scientists, who thought they were fighting a losing battle to protect the gorillas of central Africa, report a rare piece of good news. They have taken a new census of western lowland gorillas in the Republic of Congo, and say they found more than 125,000 -- nearly double what they thought were still living in the Congo and seven surrounding countries.

"We saw a lot of nests and so our conservation scientists wanted to do the survey. But we had a sense that there was something special there," said Steven Sanderson, president of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which did the census along with the Congolese government.

The report was released at a meeting of the International Primatological Society Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland. Its authors say they invite other scientists to check their results.

Gorillas Discovered in the Congo
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It has been a battle to protect these animals. The forests in which they live were being leveled for wood to be used by the booming economies of China and India. Diseases such as the Ebola virus are as deadly to primates as they are to human beings.

Perhaps the greatest threat comes from impoverished local hunters, for whom the gorillas are not an endangered species but a source of food.

So-called bush meat is part of a way of life for millions of people in Congo, where recognizable animal parts are sold as food in open markets.

"That includes just about every mammal that exists in this country, and especially gorillas," said Michael Fay, an American conservationist who has lived in Africa for decades. "Gorillas are a delicacy."

Fay said that in an interview with ABC News back in 1997, and the hunting continues today. But in the meantime, the governments of Congo, Gabon and other countries have cordoned off large areas as wildlife preserves.

The Republic of Congo set up two such parks; combined, they are about a third as large as New York State. Western conservationists, while applauding the move, say it wasn't that difficult. The area is so swampy, and the jungle is so thick, that it's almost impossible for people to penetrate.

The gorillas live in groups of about ten, known as troupes. Each is dominated by a large male, called a silverback, which mates with several females and then cares for their young.

But how could so many gorillas have been missed? Was it a mistake? Conservationists say no. Instead, they say it shows how difficult it is, in a remote and very poor part of the world, to get an accurate count.

They made their estimate by counting the so-called nests the gorillas make from leaves and twigs for sleeping.

"The nest sites can be counted in a way that can be difficult with animals that leave less of a trace," said Sanderson, the Conservation Society leader.

The find means breathing room for the lowland gorillas. But a separate report says worldwide, nearly half the world's primates are at risk of extinction -- from the same levels of hunting, disease and habitat destruction that threaten the gorillas in central Africa.

"The great find of these numbers of animals does not mean that they are out of danger," Sanderson told ABC News. "It simply means that we have a better chance of protecting them than we thought just a year ago."

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