Good news for gorillas and humpback whales

Recent weeks brought news that there are a lot more western lowland gorillas than we thought and that humpback whale populations are rebounding.

When I first read the headlines about the gorillas, it seemed that researchers had found 125,000 gorillas that had never been seen before. After reading the press release from the Wildlife Conservation Society, which helped conduct the gorilla census, the reality is that scientists have now counted a total of 125,000 western lowland gorillas in the northern part of the Congo Republic. Some 6,000 were previously unknown; many of the others live in two protected areas — a national park and a reserve.

Estimates from the 1980s put the total western lowland gorilla population at less than 100,000, spread across seven Central African nations. Scientists had suspected that in recent years the total was down to 50,000, due to hunting and ebola virus. The new census shows that conservation efforts in Congo Republic have paid off.

The gorilla species is still listed as critically endangered, but the report was a bright light in the global news cycle, which seems to contain a lot of stories about declining species. Many other primate species are losing population, especially in Vietnam and Cambodia, where 90 percent of primates are at risk. See Andrew Revkin’s coverage in the New York Times and a nice accompanying photo gallery.
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In another bit of upbeat news, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported August 12 that humpback whales are recovering and are no longer at high risk of extinction.

Humpback whales numbered in the low thousands in the 1960s, but after a hunting ban went in place in 1966, their numbers have rebounded to 60,000 worldwide. The population is growing at 5 percent per year in the North Pacific.

The IUCN also reported that southern right whales are also making a comeback. North Atlantic right whales, however, are not — only about 300 remain.

It’s encouraging, and amazing, that we can find thousands of previously unknown gorillas in the remote jungles of Central Africa. Our planet still holds many surprises and if we set our mind to it, we can preserve its incredible diversity — as these two examples show.

August 18, 2008

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Deborah Byrd

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