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Gorillas orphaned by bushmeat trade set free on island
Jeremy Hance
August 10, 2009

The Fernan-Vaz Gorilla Project has set free six young gorillas on an island outside of Loango National Park in Gabon. The release marks a new stage in the rehabilitation of the gorillas.

The six western lowland gorillas, ranging from two to seven years of age, were orphaned when their respective parents were killed for bushmeat.

Before the release the gorillas underwent a three year 'rehab program' on another island with their keepers. For younger gorillas, still capable of being released into the wild, the program is meant to provide them with the essential skills needed to survive. Such skills are usually taught to baby gorillas by their parents in the first six to eight years of their life. The island provides a refuge from poachers and other predators where the gorillas are able to acclimate to the wild in safety.

Baby Wanga (now 2), when she had only just arrived in the project. Image by Saskia de Kinkelder.
"We all felt a hint of sadness as the gorillas left the place where their journey started," said Nick Bachand, a veterinarian who works with the gorillas. "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."

The Fernan-Vz Gorilla Project and its parent program Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) point out that reintroduction of the gorillas into the wild is one part of the global strategy for saving the world’s great apes, as outlined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

"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 the Pan African Sancuary Alliance, which has worked closely with the Fernan-Vaz Gorilla Project. "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."

The Gabonese caretakers assisted veterinarian Nick Bachand in the transfer. Image by Fleur van der Minne.
A subspecies of the western gorilla, western lowland gorillas are classified as Critically-Endangered by the IUCN. The current global population is estimated between 150,000 and 200,000 individuals.

Hopes for the species were boosted in 2006 and 2007 when the Wildlife Conservation Society discovered around 125,000 gorillas living in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Fernan-Vz Gorilla Project is supported in part by the eco-tourism operator Africa's Eden.

Video showing release of gorillas on the island.

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