by LAUREN RUESINK '18
It’s 2 AM in the Congo Rainforest as the jungle glows red; one of the area’s active volcanoes has erupted and its thick lava coils down the mountain slopes. Clamors crescendo from the surrounding villages as people evacuate, taking refuge on higher ground. Amidst this commotion, large, dark shapes emerge from the dense undergrowth, barely distinguishable in the thick forest. They’re western lowland gorillas, around 400 pounds of muscle and auburn-tinted fur, with charismatic eyes and expressive brows, native to central Africa. For those who find a trip across the Atlantic unrealistic, they can also be seen at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, and until last May, among them was a seventeen-year-old silverback. Harambe not only swarmed social media, but made waves in the scientific community.
Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered, with a population size impossible to measure since they tend to inhabit the rainforest’s remote crevasses. Their most immediate threats are outbreaks of ebola, to which they are indeed susceptible too, and poaching. It is estimated that over 90% of the world’s gorilla populations have been lost in recent years. Even if commercial hunting and ebola disappeared now, their numbers would take over 75 years to recover. Like all the cards in a 52-deck, every western lowland gorilla is immeasurably vital to wildlife conservation.
Anju and her daughter, Elle, who is the zoo’s fiftieth baby gorilla.
Harambe was sent to Cincinnati from Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, in his late adolescent years to learn the social skills required for adulthood. His teachers would be the Cincinnati Zoo’s now 20-year-old half-sisters Chewie and Mara. Gorillas are very social animals, and in the wild they don’t do very much alone. They forage together, spend lazy afternoons grooming together, and follow the lead silverback through the rainforest. In turn, the silverback protects them from danger.
Jomo, the silverback at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Losing any member of their troop can be a traumatizing experience, especially their leader, but luckily, Chewie and Mara are “self-assured, confident females” and are doing “fine, eating and behaving normally.”
Some of the other gorillas at the Cincinnati Zoo, led by Jomo the Silverback.
While Harambe is gone, the crusade to protect western lowland gorillas continues. The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden has “redoubled its efforts to support gorilla conservation and encourages others to join.” For years, the zoo has collected old cell phones. Every cell phone contains a rare ore in it, Coltan, and one of the only places it can be found is in the Congo Rainforest—the same regions that the gorillas inhabit. These lands are deforested to collect the ore, but if old cell phones are recycled, then the Coltan can be reused, thus decreasing demand for the metal and habitat loss. The Zoo also has plans to expand on Gorilla World. They’ve already increased safety measures and are developing an exhibit that will allow guests to see the gorillas year round.
One of the gorillas watching her troop mates.
At 2 AM in the Congo Rainforest, night weighs over the jungle, but at this same time in Cincinnati, the sun has just set. There is still time for the western lowland gorilla population to do a complete 180. To help with conservation efforts, please consider giving an old cell phone to the zoo, or even just visiting the zoo or raising awareness about the plight of gorillas. Harambe is gone, but keep in mind the next time a disrespectful meme pops up on your social media that the controversy over what happened in May is just a peek into animal conservation and rights. There is so much that can be done to help out gorillas, their habitat, and other critically endangered species. Let’s make Harambe a call to action, not a joke.
The zoo staff remembers Harambe for his incredible intellect. Ian Redmond, a tropical field biologist and conservationist, says that gorillas are “as fascinated by us as we are of them” and the Zoo says that they will be forever “grateful to have had the privilege to work with Handsome Harambe.”
A Harambe Memorial inside the Cincinnati Zoo’s Gorilla World.
Visit this link to learn more about how the Zoo has moved on since Harambe’s death: http://cincinnatizoo.org/harambe-faq/