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Friday, July 27, 2007

Press Release from “The International Gorilla Conservation Programme”: Recent mountain gorilla killings

(Mimi's note: Considerng that these gorillas were left in the forest intact, and that only 2 group members are missing (a female and an infant), it suggests that these gorillas were not killed for meat or "souvenirs" nor for the pet trade. Furthermore since the gorillas were found inside the park they were also not trespassing onto farmland. Thus, the "traditional" explanations as to why these creatures are usally killed, do not seem to apply here)

Three female mountain gorillas and one male silverback gorilla have been killed in the Virungas National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The bodies were discovered in the southern sector of the park by rangers from the Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), the DRC’s wildlife and protected areas authority. All four mountain gorillas were shot, but it is unclear who killed them and why.
Just over 700 mountain gorillas survive in the wild today, and none exist in captivity. For such a small population the unnecessary and indiscriminate killing of four mountain gorillas is a huge loss.
The gorillas belonged to the Rugendo group that lived in the area visited often by tourists - providing valuable economic benefits for local communities.

The female gorillas killed were ‘Safari’, ‘Neeza’, and ‘Mburanumwe’. The male silverback was known as ‘Rugendo’ and was an alpha male. Alpha males fulfil a leadership role within a group, and in their absence, the integrity of the group is often compromised. Before the killings the Rugendo group comprised 12 individuals. Six are confirmed as safe, but two gorillas, a female and an infant, are missing.

ICCN patrols have been increased within the southern sector of the park with support from the DRC army. Guard posts are being constructed to provide 24-hour surveillance of the park.
“Just two months ago, we celebrated the increase of the gorilla population in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda," says Dr. Kwame Koranteng, Regional Representative of WWF's Eastern Africa Regional Programme Office. "Seven gorillas killed in 7 months is a horrifying statistic and a trend that cannot continue," he added.
Chief Executive of Fauna & Flora International, Mark Rose, said: "We are deeply concerned about this incident which follows more than 20 years of successful collaboration for mountain gorilla conservation. Whatever the motive underlying this tragedy, the gorillas are helpless pawns in a feud between individuals."
Earlier this year two silverback male gorillas were shot dead in the same area of the park. The perpetrators were believed to be supporters of Laurent Nkunda. The skin of one of the dead gorillas was recovered from a latrine in a nearby rebel camp. In May, a female gorilla was shot dead in the same park. Her infant is now being hand reared by the ICCN in Goma.

Post mortem examinations on the four gorillas are being carried out. The bodies will be buried near Bukima, an outpost within the park.

UPDATE: article from the BBC


The International Gorilla Conservation Programme was formed in 1991 and is a partnership between Fauna & Flora International, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the African Wildlife Foundation and the protected area authorities in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, to conserve the threatened mountain gorillas and their forest habitat.
The goal of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) is to ensure the conservation of mountain gorillas and their regional afromontane forest habitat in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC.
Formed in 1991, IGCP comprises three coalition partners: African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The partnership also incorporates the respective protected area authorities of the three countries in which IGCP works: the Office Rwandais de Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN), the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN).

Worldwide Fund for Nature—WWF
WWF, the global conservation organization, is one of the world’s largest and most respected independent conservation organizations. WWF has a global network active in over 100 countries with almost 5 million supporters.
WWF’s Mission is to stop the degradation of the earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by: conserving the world’s biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption.

Fauna & Flora International
Fauna & Flora International (FFI) acts to conserve threatened species and ecosystems world-wide, choosing solutions that are sustainable, based on sound science, and take account of human needs.
Founded in 1903, FFI is the longest established international conservation organization, and is currently supporting conservation through our 300 partners in more than 60 countries world-wide.

The African Wildlife Foundation
The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) is the leading international conservation organization focused solely on Africa. We believe that protecting Africa’s wildlife and wild landscapes is the key to the future prosperity of Africa and its people – and for over forty-five years we have made it our work to help ensure that Africa’s wild resources endure.
Mission: The African Wildlife Foundation, together with the people of Africa, works to ensure the wildlife and wild lands of Africa will endure forever.

For more details and photographs contact:

Chris Loades. Fauna & Flora International: or call +44 (0)1223 579021.

Kimunya Mugo, Communications Manager, WWF Eastern Africa Regional Programme Office (EARPO), t +254 20 387 26 30/31, m +254 723 786191, or

Helen Gichohi. African Wildlife Foundation,

Very Important Scientist of the Month: Gottfried Hohmann

Bonobos are celebrated as peace-loving, matriarchal, and sexually liberated. Are they?
by Ian Parker

From the New Yorker

On a Saturday evening a few months ago, a fund-raiser was held in a downtown Manhattan yoga studio to benefit the bonobo, a species of African ape that is very similar to—but, some say, far nicer than—the chimpanzee. A flyer for the event depicted a bonobo sitting in the crook of a tree, a superimposed guitar in its left hand, alongside the message “Save the Hippie Chimps!” An audience of young, shoeless people sat cross-legged on a polished wooden floor, listening to Indian-accented music and eating snacks prepared by Bonobo’s, a restaurant on Twenty-third Street that serves raw vegetarian food. According to the restaurant’s take-out menu, “Wild bonobos are happy, pleasure-loving creatures whose lifestyle is dictated by instinct and Mother Nature.”

The event was arranged by the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, an organization based in Washington, D.C., which works in the Democratic Republic of Congo to protect bonobo habitats and to combat illegal trading in bush meat. Sally Jewell Coxe, the group’s founder and president, stood to make a short presentation. She showed slides of bonobos, including one captioned “MAKE LOVE NOT WAR,” and said that the apes, which she described as “bisexual,” engaged in various kinds of sexual activity in order to defuse conflict and maintain a tranquil society. There was applause. “Bonobos are into peace and love and harmony,” Coxe said, then joked, “They might even have been the first ape to discover marijuana.” Images of bonobos were projected onto the wall behind her: they looked like chimpanzees but had longer hair, flatter faces, pinker lips, smaller ears, narrower bodies, and, one might say, more gravitas—a chimpanzee’s arched brow looks goofy, but a bonobo’s low, straight brow sets the face in what is easy to read as earnest contemplativeness.

I spoke to a tall man in his forties who went by the single name Wind, and who had driven from his home in North Carolina to sing at the event. He was a musician and a former practitioner of “metaphysical counselling,” which he also referred to as clairvoyance. He said that he had encountered bonobos a few years ago at Georgia State University, at the invitation of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a primatologist known for experiments that test the language-learning abilities of bonobos. (During one of Wind’s several visits to G.S.U., Peter Gabriel, the British pop star, was also there; Gabriel played a keyboard, another keyboard was put in front of a bonobo, and Wind played flutes and a small drum.) Bonobos are remarkable, Wind told me, for being capable of “unconditional love.” They were “tolerant, patient, forgiving, and supportive of one another.” Chimps, by contrast, led brutish lives of “aggression, ego, and plotting.” As for humans, they had some innate stock of bonobo temperament, but they too often behaved like chimps. (The chimp-bonobo division is strongly felt by devotees of the latter. Wind told me that he once wore a chimpanzee T-shirt to a bonobo event, and “got shit for it.”)

It was Wind’s turn to perform. “Help Gaia and Gaia will help you,” he chanted into a microphone, in a booming voice that made people jump. “Help bonobo and bonobo will help you.”

In recent years, the bonobo has found a strange niche in the popular imagination, based largely on its reputation for peacefulness and promiscuity. The Washington Post recently described the species as copulating “incessantly”; the Times claimed that the bonobo “stands out from the chest-thumping masses as an example of amicability, sensitivity and, well, humaneness”; a PBS wildlife film began with the words “Where chimpanzees fight and murder, bonobos are peacemakers. And, unlike chimps, it’s not the bonobo males but the females who have the power.” The Kinsey Institute claims on its Web site that “every bonobo—female, male, infant, high or low status—seeks and responds to kisses.” And, in Los Angeles, a sex adviser named Susan Block promotes what she calls “The Bonobo Way” on public-access television. (In brief: “Pleasure eases pain; good sex defuses tension; love lessens violence; you can’t very well fight a war while you’re having an orgasm.”) In newspaper columns and on the Internet, bonobos are routinely described as creatures that shun violence and live in egalitarian or female-dominated communities; more rarely, they are said to avoid meat. These behaviors are thought to be somehow linked to their unquenchable sexual appetites, often expressed in the missionary position. And because the bonobo is the “closest relative” of humans, its comportment is said to instruct us in the fundamentals of human nature. To underscore the bonobo’s status as a signpost species—a guide to human virtue, or at least modern dating—it is said to walk upright. (The Encyclopædia Britannica depicts the species in a bipedal pose, like a chimpanzee in a sitcom.)

This pop image of the bonobo—equal parts dolphin, Dalai Lama, and Warren Beatty—has flourished largely in the absence of the animal itself, which was recognized as a species less than a century ago. Two hundred or so bonobos are kept in captivity around the world; but, despite being one of just four species of great ape, along with orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees, the wild bonobo has received comparatively little scientific scrutiny. It is one of the oddities of the bonobo world—and a source of frustration to some—that Frans de Waal, of Emory University, the high-profile Dutch primatologist and writer, who is the most frequently quoted authority on the species, has never seen a wild bonobo

continue reading here

Potential for female kin associations in wild western gorillas despite female dispersal

Brenda J. Bradley, Diane M. Doran-Sheehy, Linda Vigilant
Published in Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences
Volume 274, Number 1622 / September 07, 2007
pp: 2179-2185

Get the full article here

Female philopatry and male dispersal are the norm for most mammals, and females that remain in their natal region often derive foraging or social benefits from proximity to female kin. However, other factors, such as constraints on group size or a shortage of potential mates, may promote female dispersal even when female kin associations would be beneficial. In these cases, female kin associations might develop, not through female philopatry, but through female emigration to the same group. To date, little attention has been focused on the potential for kin-biased behaviour between females in female-dispersing species. Here we investigate the genetic relationships among adults in eight wild groups of unhabituated western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) at the Mondika Research Center using microsatellite genotyping of DNA collected from hair and faeces. We found that almost half (40%) of adult females had an adult female relative in the same group and average within-group relatedness among females was significantly higher than that expected under a model of random dispersal. This provides the first genetic evidence that females can maintain social associations with female relatives in spite of routine natal and secondary dispersal. In addition, we show that females appear to avoid related silverback males when making dispersal decisions, suggesting that a strategy of non-random female dispersal may also function to avoid inbreeding.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Very Important Scientist of the Month - Cleve Hicks

Found: the giant lion-eating chimps of the magic forest
From the Guardian

James Randerson, science correspondent
Saturday July 14, 2007

Deep in the Congolese jungle is a band of apes that, according to local legend, kill lions, catch fish and even howl at the moon. Local hunters speak of massive creatures that seem to be some sort of hybrid between a chimp and a gorilla.

Their location at the centre of one of the bloodiest conflicts on the planet, the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has meant that the mystery apes have been little studied by western scientists. Reaching the region means negotiating the shifting fortunes of warring rebel factions, and the heart of the animals' range is deep in impenetrable forest.

But despite the difficulties, a handful of scientists have succeeded in studying the animals. Early speculation that the apes may be some yeti-like new species or a chimp/gorilla hybrid proved unfounded, but the truth has turned out to be in many ways even more fascinating. They are actually a population of super-sized chimps with a unique culture - and it seems, a taste for big cat flesh.

The most detailed and recent data comes from Cleve Hicks, at the University of Amsterdam, who has spent 18 months in the field watching the Bili apes - named after a local town - since 2004. His team's most striking find came after one of his trackers heard chimps calling for several days from the same spot.

When he investigated he came across a chimp feasting on the carcass of a leopard. Mr Hicks cannot be sure the animal was killed by the chimp, but the find lends credence to the apes' lion-eating reputation.

"What we have found is this completely new chimpanzee culture," said Mr Hicks. Previously, researchers had only managed to snatch glimpses of the animals or take photos of them using camera traps. But Mr Hicks used local knowledge to get closer to them and photograph them.

"We were told of this sort of fabled land out west by one of our trackers who goes out there to fish," said Mr Hicks whose project is supported by the Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation. "I call it the magic forest. It is a very special place."

Getting there means a gruelling 40km (25-mile) trek through the jungle, from the nearest road, not to mention navigating croc-infested rivers. But when he arrived he found apes without their normal fear of humans. Chimps near the road flee immediately at the sight of people because they know the consequences of a hunter's rifle, but these animals were happy to approach him. "The further away from the road the more fearless the chimps got," he added.

Mr Hicks reports that he found a unique chimp culture. For example, unlike their cousins in other parts of Africa the chimps regularly bed down for the night in nests on the ground. Around a fifth of the nests he found were there rather than in the trees.

"How can they get away with sleeping on the ground when there are lions, leopards, golden cats around as well as other dangerous animals like elephants and buffalo?" said Mr Hicks.

"I don't like to paint them as being more aggressive, but maybe they prey on some of these predators and the predators kind of leave them alone." He is keen to point out though that they don't howl at the moon.

"The ground nests were very big and there was obviously something very unusual going on there. They are not unknown elsewhere but very unusual," said Colin Groves, an expert on primate morphology at the Australian National University in Canberra who has observed the nests in the field.

Prof Groves believes that the Bili apes should prompt a radical rethink of the family tree of chimp sub-species. He has proposed that primatologists should now recognise five different sub-divisions instead of the current four.

Mr Hicks said the animals also have what he calls a "smashing culture" - a blunt but effective way of solving problems. He has found hundreds of snails and hard-shelled fruits smashed for food, seen chimps carrying termite mounds to rocks to break them open and also found a turtle that was almost certainly smashed apart by chimps.

Like chimp populations in other parts of Africa, the Bili chimps use sticks to fish for ants, but here the tools are up to 2.5 metres long.

The most exciting thing about this population of chimps though is that it is much bigger than anyone realised and may be one of the largest remaining continuous populations of the species left in Africa. Mr Hicks and his colleague Jeroen Swinkels surveyed an area of 7,000 square kilometres and found chimps everywhere. Their unique culture was uniform throughout.

However, the future for the Bili apes is far from secure. "Things are not promising," said Karl Ammann, an independent wildlife photographer who began investigating the apes 1996. "The absence of a strong central government has resulted in most of the region becoming more independent and lawless. In conservation terms this is a disaster."