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Celebrating the creation of the Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary
20 May 2008

Another milestone in the conservation of the Cross River gorilla has now been achieved with the formal announcement last month that the Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary has been recognised as the latest recruit in Cameroon’s protected area network.

Despite its relatively small size (only 19.8km2), the montane forests of Kagwene are crucially important for the conservation of Africa’s rarest ape. When Cross River gorilla researchers, headed by Jacqueline Sunderland-Groves, first visited the site and confirmed gorilla presence in 2003, they quickly realized the potential of Kagwene as a along term monitoring site due to the presence of a significant number of gorillas (+/- 20 weaned individuals), relatively easy tracking conditions (those of you who have been there may raise eyebrows at this statement having spent a morning sliding down and grappling back up steep slopes!), and the interest of local communities in the gorilla as their totem. Work by Richard Bergl of the North Carolina Zoological Park has also more recently confirmed that the Kagwene gorillas are genetically distinct from other sites where samples have been successfully collected and analysed.

With initial funding from organizations such as WWF, the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation (all of whom have stood by the development of the site to date), a simple tented research camp was established as a base for launching monitoring activities aimed at improving understanding of how the Cross River gorilla is adapted to the Kagwene environment. No such study had been previously initiated in Cameroon and Cross River gorilla socio-ecological understanding was largely limited to one previously unpublished study undertaken by Kelley McFarland in Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary in Nigeria.

A team of research assistants were recruited from some of the local villages adjacent to the Kagwene forest and their skills in tracking and interpreting gorilla sign were developed. Between 2003 and 2005, the Kagwene staff concentrated solely on tracking the Kagwene gorillas and recording information related to their daily habits. From this early stage, a clear decision was made to avoid contact with the gorillas as much as possible in order to avoid risks associated with habituating them to humans and this principal is still maintained today. Around the same time, limited conservation education activities were developed for use in some local communities and the process of discussing the possible later creation of the protected area was initiated with communities and government.

Since early 2006, work in Kagwene has broadened to include protection activities, thanks also to contributions from the Great Apes Trust of Iowa and Berggorilla. The old tented camp has now been replaced by a palatial mud block constructed camp, complete with a new solar power system thanks to one of our most recent and energetic funders, the Gorilla Organization. The research team now also includes representation from nearly all of the surrounding communities and an active conservation education programme has been established as well with support from the Disney Conservation Foundation, the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation, Boise Zoo and Columbus Zoo.

The recent construction and inauguration of an administrative office for the Sanctuary with support from the US Fish & Wildlife Service in collaboration with Fauna and Flora International, was the final push needed for the Prime Minister to sign the creation documents which effectively puts government in the driving seat for the long term.

The Wildlife Conservation Society is still committed to assisting the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife with further developing and managing the Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary and some of the next key steps are related to marking the boundary of the area and elaborating joint management strategies with local communities. Monitoring work is also set to continue and the importance of Kagwene as a training site for both government staff, students and community members living adjacent to other unprotected Cross River gorilla sites through an exciting new scheme which is focused on identifying and training ‘gorilla guardians’ from local communities is about to be started.

The window that Kagwene presents into the life of this little known yet highly enigmatic animal is therefore firmly open and we would like to once again thank all of our partners who have joined in achieving this great success.

Aaron Nicholas
Wildlife Conservation Society
for further information or photographs contact:

David Hewitt, Communications Manager
The Gorilla Organization, 110 Gloucester Avenue, London, Nw1 8HX
Tel: 020 7916 4974
Mobile: 07801 971123