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Text by Sarah Monaghan, images by SCD B.V.

SIX YOUNG GORILLAS, rescued from the illegal bush meat trade, have begun new independent lives on a lagoon island just outside Loango National Park in Gabon.

Staff at the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) are celebrating after announcing the successful transfer of the six juvenile western lowland gorillas (a species deemed critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List (IUCN)) onto the safe island in the Fernan-Vaz Lagoon.

This is the first step in a reintroduction project that is hoped will allow them to return entirely to the wild and follows a three-year-long ‘rehab programme’ to prepare them for release.

One step closer to freedom

Halfway through the Year of the Gorilla, the transfer marks the beginning of the gorillas’ independence. They have exchanged their human-built shelters for the palm-fringed forested islet where they can now live in relative safety from threats from poachers or other predators. The transfer was supervised by the Fernan-Vaz Gorilla Project (FGVP) director Nick Bachand and his team of Gabonese keepers.

“We all felt a hint of sadness as the gorillas left the place where their journey started,” said Nick Bachand, a veterinarian. “But this was instantly replaced with a mountain of pride when we observed some of the gorillas starting to build their own nests to sleep outside overnight.” Building self-made nests is an important indication, among others, of the young gorillas’ progress during this second phase of their rehabilitation.

Tragic pasts

Each of the six gorillas (three females, three males) varying in ages from two to seven, were orphaned by the illegal bush meat trade.

The oldest male, Gimenu, 7, was rescued in an emaciated state from a Gabonese zoo where he had spent three years in complete isolation. He is accompanied by Sindila, 4, an abandoned male found by tourists on a river excursion, and Ivindo, also 4, flown in from the Ivindo National Park in 2005. The youngest female, Wanga, 2, was left on the doorstep of a conservationist’s home in the southern half of Loango National Park while the other two Cessé and Eliwa, 3 and 2, were donated by another great-ape rescue centre in Gabon.

Gorilla orphanage

The gorillas have spent the past two and a half years undergoing daily forest rehabilitation accompanied by their keepers on Evengue Island, located north of Loango National Park.

A small team of local keepers will continue to monitor their progress from a base camp in the central zone of Orique island, where their new home is.

The Fernan-Vaz Gorilla Project comprises a Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Programme. All its resident gorillas were rescued after the parents were killed illegally by hunters for bush meat. The purpose of the Sanctuary is to provide a safe home for gorillas that can never return to the wild as they lack the critical survival skills usually taught by their parents in the first six to eight years of their lives.

The younger gorillas are part of its Rehabilitation Programme, however, and have undergone its quarantine and socialisation stages. They now have the potential to be reintroduced into the wild although many challenges and uncertainties remain.

‘Gorilla rehab’ plays strategic role in survival of great apes

The IUCN has identified the use of reintroduction projects as part of a global strategy for the survival of the world’s endangered great apes. The Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) works closely with the Fernan-Vaz Gorilla Project and focuses wherever possible on reintroduction programmes.

“We have to find ways to restore value to Africa’s forests, and reintroduction places focus on the African wildlife in the African forests,” said Doug Cress, executive director of PASA.

He added: “It’s no good for any of us to aspire to having the world’s largest captive population of chimpanzees or gorillas – even if we are saving lives. That is not conservation and it is not sending messages that can be translated into environmental action.”

Return to the wild

Thanks to a team of devoted veterinarians, dedicated keepers and the support of the international community, these gorillas’ return to the wild in the Gabonese equatorial forest is expected within two to three years.

In the meantime, the project is working hard to raise local and global awareness on issues facing the gorillas, to encourage research that emphasises the needs of the local people, and to integrate responsible tourism, as part of a national and international effort to save the gorilla from extinction in the wild.