Although there has been evidence of adult gorillas removing traps set by bushmeat hunters to catch forest animals in Rwanda, it has never actually been witnessed and recorded until now. Conservationists with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International were stunned to witness this event, especially since it was two juvenile gorillas, and not adults, that swung into action to remove the traps. The snares are set mostly for antelope and other species, but they occasionally catch a gorilla.
In an interview with National Geographic, Gorilla Program Coordinator Veronica Vecellio said the speed with which the gorillas dismantled the snares leads her to believe this wasn’t the first time they had dismantled a trap. She said this displays an impressive cognitive skill.
The gorillas were likely conditioned to believe snares are dangerous because other gorillas had been caught in them before. “That’s why they destroyed them,” Vecellio said. Veterinarian Mike Cranfield, executive director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, speculates that they probably learned how to destroy the traps by watching the Karisoke trackers, although Vecellio said they will not attempt to instruct apes how to destroy traps to avoid interfering with their natural behavior as much as possible.
Original press release issued by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International on July 17, 2012:
Today in Rwanda, field staff of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund observed several young gorillas from Kuryama’s group destroying snares set by poachers!
“We knew that gorillas do this but all of the reported cases in the past were carried out by adult gorillas, mostly silverbacks,” said Veronica Vecellio, gorilla program coordinator at the Karisoke Research Center. “Today, two juveniles and one blackback from Kuryama’s group worked together to deactivate two snares and how they did it demonstrated an impressive cognitive skill.”
Snares set by poachers are one of the worst threats to the safety of the mountain gorillas. The timing of this is especially significant in light of the death just two days ago, on Sunday, of juvenile Ngwino, who was caught in a snare. The rope made severe cuts into her leg, resulting in gangrene, as well as a dislocated shoulder caused by trying to escape from the snare. Although Fossey Fund staff intervened and, with vets from the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) made every effort to save her, it was too late. Hers is the second death this year resulting from a gorilla being caught in a poacher’s snare.
John Ndayambaje, Fossey Fund field data coordinator, reported that he saw one snare very close to the group; since the gorillas were moving in that direction, he decided to deactivate it. Silverback Vuba pig-grunted at him (a vocalization of warning) and at the same time juveniles Dukore and Rwema together with blackback Tetero ran toward the snare and together pulled the branch used to hold the rope. They saw another snare nearby and as quickly as before they destroyed the second branch and pulled the rope out of the ground.
Four other snares were also removed by our trackers in the same area.
“Our battle to detect and destroy snares from the park is far from over, however, and the recent death Ngwino, has given us all further motivation. Today we can proudly confirm that gorillas are doing their part too!” said Felix Ndagijimana, director of the Karisoke Center.