The mountain gorilla has easily made the top-ten list of the most “charismatic” animals in the world. Its global fame is to be expected, except that many remain unaware of its status among some of the most endangered in the wild.
These were the findings in a paper titled, “The paradoxical extinction of the most charismatic animals”, published earlier this month in the journal PLOS Biology.
The recognition makes for not a little irony that it is in the gorilla’s popularity especially because it’s the silverback’s comely brand in advertising that has led many to misconstrue its abundance in the wild.
Being too visible, many are not aware of the impact deforestation, poaching, and the incessant armed conflict, especially in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, threatening to wipe out the mountain gorilla.
The other animals from around the world that make the list include, the tiger, lion, elephant, giraffe, leopard, panda, cheetah, polar bear and the wolf.
The international team of scientists behind the research devised an online survey and asked the public to name the wild species they considered most charismatic.
While their “charisma” tallies with their general public popularity, the findings also suggest the more times people see an animal each day – say, on TV in animal programmes or cartoons, magazines, logos and other sources such as advertisement brochures and zoo websites – it had a likely subconscious impact making many think the animals are in abundance.
With the mountain gorilla, for instance, almost half of respondents thought they were not under threat. In reality, the mountain gorilla, a subspecies is part of the eastern gorilla, numbers only around 880 individuals in its natural habitat around the Virunga range of mountains, shared by Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo.
The silverback example amply illustrates, and makes for a wake-up call. But, while many people, especially outside the three countries may not be aware of the species status, it is heartening the countries’ governments have been consolidating their protection efforts.
In a bid to create consensus on how to jointly conserve the Virunga massif and Bwindi ecosystem through which the silverback roams freely, the three countries’ Council of Ministers charged with overseeing the task met in Kigali at the beginning of the month and agreed to have the necessary processes in place by September to ratify the 2015 Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC) treaty.
The study aims to bolster efforts such as the GVTC. It, however, initially started as an interrogation of the notion of “charismatic” species, which the lead researcher told BBC has cropped up recently in conservation biology.
Informing conservation policy is therefore a carry-over, especially on the animal species mentioned above, and which are categorised as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
In one of its conclusions, therefore, the study draws attention to their situation which it emphasises “is hidden by the large cultural abundance of these animals, which hinders conservation communication efforts and therefore acts as an additional, pernicious threat.”
Though the scientists are cautious, as yet, to make a direct correlation between the frequency of seeing the animals and the perception of their numbers or vulnerability to extinction, it offers a good pointer as to how over exposure in the various media representations may influence people’s perceptions.
Other influencing factors could include people’s participation in – or lack of involvement in conservation efforts, in addition to the inadequacy or lack of knowledge of the animals’ status in the wild.
However, to come back to the silverback, the efforts are concerted and include organisations such as the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. Many will also not forget individuals such as the US comedienne Ellen DeGeneres’, whose surprise 60th birthday present earlier in the year from her wife is on course to set up a permanent campus at the Fund in Rwanda.
There is also the dedicated group of vets under the organisation Gorilla Doctors who play the role of first responders looking after the health of the silverback in the three countries.
Rodents as well as wild animals such as monkeys, baboons and bats are one of the deadliest conduits of the disease. This means that the vets are always on the alert liaising with the park rangers to identify any individual exhibiting symptoms of illness.
It also goes without saying the surrounding communities make up some of the key stakeholders. It is expected that implementation of the GVTC treaty will enhance their participation and greatly improve the livelihoods of the populations living around the protected areas.
The treaty will also have in place an effective financing and profit-sharing model from tourism revenues.
In the end, however, the gorilla is only one among the vulnerable and endangered species around the region and the world that we must pay heed to the research findings to enhance our knowledge, as much for aesthetic enjoyment as for posterity, and double our conservation efforts.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.