HONOLULU • The world's largest gorillas have been pushed to the brink of extinction by a surge of illegal hunting in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and are now critically endangered, according to a new Red List of endangered species.
With just 5,000 Eastern gorillas (Gorilla beringei) left on earth, the majestic species now faces the risk of disappearing completely, officials said at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Conference in Honolulu on Sunday.
Four out of six of the planet's great apes are now critically endangered, "only one step away from going extinct", including the Eastern gorilla, Western gorilla, Bornean orangutan and Sumatran orangutan, said the IUCN in an update to its Red List, the world's most comprehensive inventory of plant and animal species.
Chimpanzees and bonobos (formerly called pygmy chimpanzees) are listed as endangered.
"To see the Eastern gorilla - one of our closest cousins - slide towards extinction is truly distressing," said Ms Inger Andersen, IUCN director-general.
War, hunting and loss of land to refugees in the past 20 years have led to a "devastating population decline of more than 70 per cent", for the Eastern gorilla, said the IUCN.
One of the two subspecies of the Eastern gorilla, known as Grauer's gorilla (G. b. graueri), has drastically declined since 1994 - when there were 16,900 of them - to just 3,800 last year.
Even though killing these apes is against the law, hunters are their greatest threat, experts said.
To see the Eastern gorilla - one of our closest cousins - slide towards extinction is truly distressing.
MS INGER ANDERSEN, director-general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The second subspecies of Eastern gorilla - the Mountain gorilla (G. b. beringei) - has seen a small rebound in its numbers and totals around 880.
According to Dr John Robinson, chief conservation officer at the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 sparked a disastrous series of events that impacted gorillas too.
"The genocide pushed a lot of people out of Rwanda, a lot of refugees into eastern DRC, who moved into areas which were relatively unoccupied by human beings," he said.
Some people hunted gorillas for meat, while mining and charcoal production and human settlement also infringed on gorillas' habitat.
On other animals, the IUCN said the situation of the Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) has improved, after protection helped it move from "endangered" to "near threatened" following a spate of commercial poaching for its valuable underfur, or shahtoosh, which is used to make shawls.
But the situation has deteriorated for others, including the Plains zebra (Equus quagga) which has been increasingly hunted for bushmeat and skins, and has moved from a species of "least concern" to "near threatened".
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS