The government of Cameroon has created the Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary, the world’s first sanctuary exclusively for the Cross River gorilla, the world’s rarest kind of great ape.

“The creation of this sanctuary is the fruit of many years of work in helping to protect the world’s rarest gorilla subspecies,” said Dr. Roger Fotso, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Cameroon Program, which worked in tandem with the Cameroon Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife in laying the groundwork for the sanctuary.

Classified as Critically Endangered by IUCN’s Red List, the Cross River gorilla is the rarest of the four subspecies of gorilla. The entire population numbers under 300 individuals across its entire range, which consists of 11 scattered sites in Cameroon and Nigeria.

The government of Cameroon has just created a sanctuary that will help protect the world's rarest great ape: the Cross River gorilla, which numbers fewer than 300 individuals in 11 scattered sites in both Cameroon and Nigeria. Courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society

The Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) is one of two subspecies of western gorilla, the other being Gorilla gorilla gorilla, the western lowland gorilla. The eastern gorilla includes the eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), and the famous mountain gorillas of the Virunga Mountains and southern Uganda (Gorilla beringei beringei).

The Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary is a small reserve, only 19.5 square kilometers in size, in a mountainous region of Cameroon. Nevertheless, it contains a genetically important segment of the entire Cross River gorilla population; it is estimated that the sanctuary currently contains approximately 20 individual animals.

While many populations of gorillas are threatened by poachers, the gorillas of Kagwene have been protected by the local belief that the apes are people and therefore cannot be hunted or consumed.

Elsewhere, hunting continues to be one of the biggest threats to Cross River gorillas, in addition to habitat destruction. Gorillas are occasionally targeted by hunters of bushmeat in the region, and genetic analysis of the population reveals a reduction in numbers over the last 200 years that is most likely due to hunting. The fragmentation of their forest habitat is caused by farming, road-building, and the burning of forests by pastoralists.

To support the newly created sanctuary, WCS recently constructed and handed over to the government an administration office with monies from the United States Fish & Wildlife Service. The sanctuary is currently staffed by residents from local communities, some of whom are former hunters. A field station has also been constructed to accommodate eco-guards who will now be posted by the government to monitor and protect the sanctuary.

“Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary provides us with a great example of how governmental agencies and conservation organizations can achieve lasting contributions to conservation,” said Dr. James Deutsch, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Africa Program. “Hopefully, this and other sanctuaries like it will give us time to protect and learn more about the world’s rarest ape.”