Gorillas coming out of the mist

An interesting story detailing new gorilla population figures, at least for the Republic of Congo.

More than 125,000 western lowland gorillas have been discovered deep in the forests of the Republic of Congo, at least doubling their estimated population. Primatologists say the newly discovered gorilla population now puts their estimated numbers at between 175,000 and 225,000. Tendai Maphosa has more from VOA’s London News Center.

Before a census conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society, scientists believed fewer than 100,000 of the gorillas still existed. The news was greeted with excitement at the International Primatological Society Congress under way in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The reaction to this news appears to have been very positive with none that I found questioning the science of the count procedures or the politics of the announcement.

I must admit that I was expecting to see some organizations taking that position as the gorilla has been an icon species for fund raising and stories that might mute the public concern about extinction could be seen as a threat to raising cash.

There were certainly cautionary statements to the effect that the western lowland gorilla was only one of several species and that in general, primate populations were of concern in both Africa and Asia.

Jillian Miller, executive director of conservation group The Gorilla Organization commented: “The discovery of such a large population of western lowland gorillas is absolutely fantastic news for the sub-species and for conservationists, but we should be careful not to be too complacent.

“The area where these gorillas have been found is in the path of the Ebola virus, which has wiped out large numbers of Western lowland gorillas during the past 25 years.”

She added: “Numbers are less important than trends, and sadly the trend for all gorilla sub-species, apart from the mountain gorillas, has been a downturn in population figures.”

The reason I expected some kind of “don’t believe the numbers” comment is from my experience with grizzly populations in British Columbia and environmentalist’s continuing attacks on the numbers presented by provincial researchers.

This B.C. reaction may be more closely connected to the campaign to stop grizzly hunting that it is to a healthy population of grizzly bears. But one of your key arguments against hunting – that it is not sustainable – is badly damaged if the population estimates are strong.

Back in the early 1980s the provincial government estimated that there were around 10,000 grizzlies in B.C. But as the anti-hunting crusade began to build there were criticisms leveled that there had been little to no population studies being done to back up those estimates.

The Ministry of Environment began to expend more time, energy and money (when it was available) to update their population estimates and by 2001 the new estimate had increased to 14,000 bears.

But by now the anti-grizzly hunt campaigners were in full battle dress. They disputed the government figures and maintained that the actual populations were more likely in the area of 3,000 to 4,000 bears. This of course based on no studies or calculations, just the need for a lower figure.

Official figures put the number of grizzly bears in B.C. at about 14,000, but de Leeuw says overhunting may have reduced the population to as few as 3,000. Hunters kill an estimated 300 each year, with another 300 killed for public safety purposes and by poachers. Over a 33-year period from 1965 to 1997, he estimates more than 6,000 female bears were slaughtered, far in excess of the number the B.C. government considers sustainable.

“These results are discouraging at best,” de Leeuw writes. “They clearly indicate that rather than controlling the total kill of grizzly bears to what may well be an arbitrarily conservative level, for 33 years the province has allowed the kill to exceed its own standard of sustainable mortality.”

Compounding matters is the dubious nature of the B.C. Ministry of Environment’s grizzly population estimates. From 1972 to 1979 the province estimated a population of 6,660 grizzly bears. But in 1990, the Ministry estimated that the province was home to 13,160 bears, using a “habitat suitability” model that assumes grizzlies occupy all suitable habitat, de Leeuw contends the model is so flawed that virtually all grizzly bears could be exterminated in B.C. by sport hunters, and the government would still allow hunting.

With the advent of DNA sampling B.C. researchers had a new tool in population research and as they gained more experience and gathered more data, the grizzly population estimates kept rising, to the present level of around 17,000 bears.

In the meantime, things had happened on the political scene. In the latter stages of the provincial NDP government’s reign the new Minister of Environment put a moratorium on all grizzly hunting in the province – against the advice of the professionals in his department. That lasted until the provincial Liberals won the next election and reinstated the hunt.

Now, with a provincial election in the offing, the anti-hunt crowd, although never gone, has been generating a new campaign. The story is the same: The official figures are incorrect (although they seem to have deserted – at least publicly – the idea that the population could be as low as 4,000 animals) and therefore all hunting should be arbitrarily ended.

In an interview with the Daily News, Genovali said that only 84 per cent of grizzlies killed in the province were shot by trophy hunters, but he insisted that should bring little comfort to British Columbians.

“There are no firm numbers of how many grizzlies are actually alive in B.C.,” said Genovali.

The suggested number of grizzly bears in B.C. right now is 17,000, which is up by 11,000 on when the first provincially recorded number of grizzly bears was noted in 19 72. However, Genovali disregards that number as nothing more than speculation.

So to come full circle: New population counts showing an increased gorilla population are greeted with great enthusiasm while studies showing a continuing increase in grizzly populations are attacked as government propaganda.

Which leads me to my conclusion that in B.C. it is more an anti-hunting issue than a grizzly bear population issue.

Not bad – all the way from gorillas in Africa to grizzly bears in British Columbia in one blog.

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One Response to “Gorillas coming out of the mist”

  1. JT Says:

    Hunting is good for the economy. Anti hunting groups could not come close to inducing a government to halt hunting just because it blows. Fact is, bears shouldn’t be hunted unless we know what the heck we are doing. Predicting numbers under the assumption that it is correct because science has employed “new” methods in obtaining them doesn’t sit well because every year there are new numbers, minus or plus, adding to the fact that we do not know what we are doing yet. UNTIL we know exactly what we are doing the bears should be left alone. What’s the saying? For every problem solved in science, ten more are created.

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