Gorilla Poaching: The Sad, Savage Reality

For every gorilla who outwits a poacher, dozens or hundreds more are lost to gorilla poaching.

gorilla poaching

These beautiful creatures are put in harms way when a soulless monster pursues a career in gorilla poaching. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

wrote the bestseller Soldier Dogs and was staff writer at USA Today and the San Francisco Chronicle.

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Earlier this year, tourists and researchers watched in awe as three young gorillas approached a poacher’s snare in Rwanda and purposefully began to dismantle it. The three, acting together, jumped on a branch that was attached to a rope noose. The branch’s movement loosened the rope, and the youngsters removed it. The crimefighting trio then ran off to another snare and performed the same feat.

All the while, a silverback watched over them. The adult gorilla had cautioned the humans to stay back from the snare when they first approached. He knew what he was doing. The young gorillas had likely learned how to dismantle these deadly snares by watching older silverbacks do it. And now it was their turn to have a go at it.

The fact that the older apes had figured it out, and that the younger apes had learned from them, astounds me. But it shouldn’t be such a surprise. Gorillas are incredibly smart.  

MORE: Eat It, Poachers: Savvy Gorillas Destory Traps in Rwanda

Just two days earlier, another victim of gorilla poaching had perished in a similar snare. Only he wasn’t worth anything to poachers, because he was an infant gorilla. His name was Ngwino. Field researchers in the area were clearly not the only ones who mourned Ngwino’s loss.

The gorillas’ dismantling of the snares was a win. But a rare win. For every gorilla who outwits a poacher, dozens or hundreds more perish.

Gorillas are facing insurmountable odds these days—odds many fear could lead to their extinction within a decade or two. Thousands of gorillas have been killed by the Ebola virus. Huge agriculture, mining, and timber operations segment gorilla habitat into isolated blocks. The logging leads not only to vital habitat loss, but to major literal inroads used for gorilla poaching.

Almost every bit of a gorilla is salable on the black market. Their hands are considered delicacies or magic charms—or sometimes made into ashtrays. Their heads are taken as fetishes or curiosities. But it’s the meat that really makes gorilla poaching attractive.

The meat on one 300-pound male gorilla can fetch a large sum on the illegal bushmeat market. A researcher in a National Geographic video says the killer of the dead gorilla would get about $5 (U.S.)—a significant amount in Africa, but a pittance compared to what the gorilla will bring as he or she is sold bit by bit by others.

From a Western perspective, it’s sickening that the life of one of these great apes is worth about the same amount as a Triple Whopper. But if you live near these apes and you are impoverished, the meat and funds from an ape could take the burden off, at least for a while. The fact that gorillas are endangered doesn’t mean much when you’re contemplating gorilla poaching.

The prices only go up after the poacher sells the body. A pound of precut, smoked gorilla meat costs about $6 for a “hand-sized” piece. Some of the meat makes it to Western markets in places like Paris, London, and New York, and you can bet that the BK price scheme is nowhere in sight on these underground menus.

How does meat from gorilla poaching enter the U.S.? U.C. Berkeley researchers discovered the unsettling mode of delivery:

“They found that most illegal meat is carried in suitcases and also is shipped in parcels and large containers coming through JFK and Miami airports. Inspectors say they can only catch about one percent of the total coming into the country,” according to an article on Primatology.net.

So what can be done? For decades, the idea has been to make gorillas worth more alive than dead. Gorilla tourism is the new cash crop in parts of the Congo Basin and beyond. Much of the money that comes in goes directly to local communities for schools and other beneficial projects. Gorilla tourism also provides valuable jobs in these areas.

Many call for increased physical protection of these endangered apes. But others argue that you could have whole armies out there and not make much of a dent in gorilla poaching. It doesn’t take many people who want to profit from gorilla poaching to continue to put gorillas in harm’s way. Dian Fossey’s horrible, violent death in 1985—almost certainly at the hand of a poacher—was an early harbinger of this resistance.

Even the possible dangers of transmission of deadly viruses to humans from gorilla meat doesn’t often make the poaching—or the meat—less palatable.

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe, as with the young gorillas undoing the snares, it has something to do with the younger generations growing up near gorilla habitat. I just hope the answer to gorilla poaching comes before it’s too late.

If you were judge and jury, what punishment would you give for gorilla poaching? Tell us in the comments.

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