The world’s largest living primate, the Eastern gorilla, has been listed as under threat of extinction in the annual Red List of endangered species. There was good news, however, for the giant panda.
Illegal hunting in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has reportedly killed 70 percent of all Eastern gorillas in the past two decades and brought the world’s largest primate to the verge of extinction, according the so-called Red List of endangered species, published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Meeting in Hawaii on Sunday, the organization announced that only an estimated 5,000 Eastern gorillas remain in the wild. Eastern gorillas, revised from a lesser category of “endangered,” join their sister species, the Western gorilla, and both species of orangutan, which were already on the list as critically endangered. The other two species of great apes, chimpanzees and bonobos, were rated as endangered this year.
Poaching crisis in South Africa
“To see the Eastern gorilla – one of our closest cousins – slide towards extinction is truly distressing,” said Inger Andersen, director general of the IUCN.
“Conservation action does work and we have increasing evidence of it. It is our responsibility to enhance our efforts to turn the tide and protect the future of our planet.”
Catherine Novelli, US undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, called the dwindling gorilla numbers a man-made tragedy.
In the greater context, four of six species of great apes are now rated “critically endangered,” or one step away from extinction, according to the Red List.
The gorillas are under threat by the loss of forests to farmland, reaching from West Africa to Indonesia, but are chiefly hunted for bush meat.
The second Congolese war from 1996 and 2003, and ongoing violence in the region, has lead to militias and locals often hunting gorillas for food. Killing the apes is against the law, but that doesn’t appear to deter people from hunting the animals.
A destructive world
The Red List now contains more than 80,000 species, with almost 24,000 of those threatened with extinction. The IUCN compiles its peer-reviewed Red List alongside partners such as universities and environmental groups within animals’ natural habitat. It is regarded as the most comprehensive analysis of endangered species.
Among other changes, the IUCN said the population of plains zebra in Africa had fallen to about 500,000 animals from 660,000, also because of hunting for their meat as well as their skins. Illegal hunting and habitat loss also pushed three species of antelope found in Africa to “near threatened” status, including the bay duiker, the white-bellied duiker and the yellow-backed duiker.
The Red List also highlighted the growing extinction threat to flora, stressing the threat on Hawaiian plants posed by invasive species including pigs, goats, rats, slugs and non-native plants.
Good news for giant pandas
Other animals on the Red List fared better than primates, including the giant panda, which had previously been placed on the endangered list. It is now still listed as “vulnerable” following years of conservation efforts to protect its habitat. Decades of conservation work in China appear to have paid off for the giant panda.
“For over 50 years, the giant panda has been the globe’s most beloved conservation icon,” said Marco Lambertini, director general of the environmental group World Wildlife Fund.
“Knowing that the panda is now a step further from extinction is an exciting moment for everyone committed to conserving the world’s wildlife.”
The latest estimates show a giant panda population of 1,864 adult giant pandas. Although exact numbers were not available, adding estimates for cubs to the projection would mean about that 2,060 pandas exist today, according to the IUCN.
The numbers of the Tibetan antelope have also improved, after protection efforts helped it move from “endangered” to “near threatened.” The antelope is targeted by commercial poachers for its valuable underfur, used to make shawls.