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Mountain Gorillas Back from the Brink of Extinction

But experts warn we're not out of long term danger yet

First sighted by a non-African and identified as a separate species in 1902, the population of mountain gorillas in Central Africa stood at 620 in 1989. By 2002, their numbers had increased to 674.

The director of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP)., Dr Annette Lanjouw, said: "International and national efforts to protect this species have pulled the mountain gorilla back from the brink of extinction. This is a very modest increase in the gorillas' numbers, and we'd have expected a much higher one if they faced no threats.

But the population is okay - even with this slow increase the gorillas are viable. However, if we want to ensure that they survive another hundred years, we must ensure that we lift the pressures that still threaten their forest home."

Threats to the apes include hunting, capture for the illegal pet trade, and especially habitat loss. The countries where the mountain gorillas live have been wracked by war and are among the poorest in the world. Poaching is a major problem because illegal sales of young gorillas bring the poachers large amounts of money -- as much as $20,000 for one animal.

The low numbers of gorillas, which are divided between two unconnected parks in the region, makes the theft of even one baby gorilla a threat to the genetic viability of the species, according to Francois Bizimungu, senior conservation official at the national park in northwestern Rwanda. He added that gorillas are also threatened by human diseases, such as measles.

As a way to reduce the threat of poaching, Rwanda's minister of commerce, industry and tourism, Alexandre Lyambabaje, says authorities plan to use tourism revenues to help villagers living near the park build hospitals and schools. "The plan is to make neighboring villagers benefit directly from the park," he said. "Once they are convinced that the park is beneficial, they would be more committed to protect the park, and this is key to long-term survival of mountain gorillas."