Harambe’s Death Shine Light On Extinction Threat Facing Africa’s Gorillas

Harambe the Gorilla

On May 28, a tragic incident occurred at the Cincinnati Zoo in the USA. A 4 year old boy, momentarily out of sight of his parents, fell into the enclosure of the zoo’s gorilla exhibit. Harambe, a 400 pound silverback, picked up the boy from the moat where he had landed. For several minutes, the gorilla demonstrated harmless actions towards the boy. It picked him up, stood him up then put him down again and gazed at him. The ungorilla-like sounds of fright of the boy and the screaming reactions from the zoo crowd spooked Harambe into dragging the boy a couple of times through the moat. In a controversial decision, zoo authorities made a decision to shoot Harambe, unleashing condemnations from around the world.

Harambe gazing at the child in the moat

The zoo justified its decision to shoot on the utmost priority, in the tense situation, to save the boy’s life. After all, Harambe was an animal whose life was relatively of low priority compared to the boy’s life. A tranquilizer dart was an alternative, but the zoo ruled it out, fearing it could agitate Harambe into harming the boy during the several minutes it would take for the drug to take effect.

There are records of mishaps of this kind in zoos where gorillas were not shot so humans could be rescued. In 1996, at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, a 3 year old fell into the gorilla enclosure. Knocked out unconscious, the child was safely retrieved from the enclosure after an 8 year old gorilla blocked other primates from getting to him. In 1986, on the island of Jersey in the English Channel, a 5-year old English boy fell 20 feet into another gorilla enclosure. While  he lay on the concrete unconscious, a male gorilla got to him, stroked his back and kept watch over him until he was taken out by an ambulance crew. From the above, one can infer that Harambee probably did not present any danger to the boy, although the previous incidents involved unconscious kids. Those supporting the actions of the zoo to shoot Harambee also make the point that tranquilizing the animal could’ve resulted in all 400 lbs of its weight crashing on the boy and crushing him as the drugs took effect.

A forest habitat of the Gorilla in Nigeria cleared for timber and farming.

Harambee’s death, as tragic as it was, created an opportunity to illuminate to the conscience of the world the myriad of challenges the primates face in their natural African habitats. The mountain gorillas inhabit a swath of territory that cuts through Uganda, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo. Another forested area through the borders of six nations—Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo—is home to the Western lowland gorilla, the species Harambee belonged in. Nigeria and Cameroon share the habitat of the Cross River gorilla. Although there are physical differences among the species—the mountain gorilla is the biggest, more powerful and hairier (because it lives in a colder mountainous environment), and the Cross River gorilla is smaller—they all exhibit similar tendencies. They live in groups and are led by an alpha male who protects and determines the group’s daily activity, such as feeding, travel and resting times. Male gorillas can weigh as much as 400lbs. The females weigh only half of that.

The numbers of the gorillas are dwindling as a consequence of a number of factors—wars, poaching and human encroachment into their habitat. In the last 2 decades, deadly wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, often featuring armies that operated in the bush, drove the primates from their habitats. The pressure from loss of habitat pushed them to less safe areas where they became the victims of poachers. Body parts of adult gorillas are sold to collectors who are primarily Western. Some Africans with exotic tastes buy gorilla meat which they dub bush meat. Very often, young gorillas orphaned by the poachers, are sold as pets.

In the Cross River gorilla habitat, an area straddling Nigeria and Cameroon, the Boko Haram insurgency is a factor in the disruption of the lives of the gorillas, as the armies of Nigeria and Cameroon engage the terrorist organization in battles across  the habitat, forcing the gorillas to self-relocate nearer and nearer to human settlements. Aside from the wars, relentless clearing of forests for timber and farming activities has squeezed the gorillas and shrunk their habitat considerably.

The world, through conservation organizations and mandates from national governments and the UN, must take action lest the gorillas become extinct and that would be a shame and a stain on the collective conscience of the world. The world must pull together, in the spirit of the meaning of Harambe (Swahili for ‘all pull together’) to save the gorillas.

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