Staff at a gorilla research center are getting some unexpected help to save the lives of the critically endangered animals: Gorilla youngsters are jumping in to disable poachers' traps.
Staff at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund's Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda recently witnessed two 4-year-olds and a teenage mountain gorilla work together to destroy the types of snares that have killed at least two young gorillas this year. It was also the first time staff members have been able to see up close exactly how gorillas dismantle the snares.
"We knew that gorillas do this, but all of the reported cases in the past were carried out by adult gorillas, mostly silverbacks," said gorilla program coordinator Veronica Vecellio. "How they did it demonstrated an impressive cognitive skill."
The discovery that younger gorillas are also learning to recognize and disable the dangerous snares was especially heartening to research center staff because it came while they were still grieving over the death just two days earlier of an infant gorilla named Ngwino who was caught in a snare.
On July 17 field staff and some tourists in the Virunga volcanoes conservation area that is home to more than half of the world's 790 remaining mountain gorillas witnessed a group of gorillas getting close to a snare.
One of the staff members reported he moved to dismantle the snare when a silverback (adult male) in the group grunted at him warning him to stay back. Then two youngsters named Dukore and Rwema and a blackback (teen male) named Tetero ran toward the snare. Together they jumped on the taught branch attached to a rope noose and removed the rope. They then ran over to another nearby snare and destroyed it the same way. Pictures the staff members took show the young gorillas then examining broken sticks used to camouflage the noose on the ground.
Every year, Fossey Fund field staff remove more than a thousand such simple but deadly snares set by bush-meat hunters. They speculate the younger gorillas learned to destroy snares by watching the older silverbacks do so.
Fossey Fund staff cannot teach gorillas how to dismantle snares because it is against their policy to intentionally change gorillas' natural behavior, but they are pleased to know the gorillas are apparently teaching each other to protect themselves.
"Our battle to detect and destroy snares from the park is far from over," said Vecellio. "Today we can proudly confirm the gorillas are doing their part, too."