What’s in a Name? Why “Endangered” Label Doesn’t Put Mountain Gorillas in the Clear

September 3, 2019

Getting a downlisting from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species does not necessarily mean extinction has stopped knocking on a species’ door.

Indeed, in the case of mountain gorillas, who were promoted from critically endangered to endangered at the end of 2018, the possibility still looms. “The difference is between a ‘very high’ or ‘extremely high’ risk of extinction,” says Liz Williamson, the Red List authority coordinator for great apes and former director of Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

The criteria used to classify animals are less about threats to their survival than they are about population and habitat trends. The mountain gorilla’s latest survey showed substantial increases in both of its subpopulations—partially due to actual growth and partially due to better monitoring—continuing a trend that started in the 1980s.

“It is important that Red List assessments are rigorous and transparent, so we really didn’t have a choice” but to change the subspecies’ status, Williamson says. “I think the mountain gorilla should have been downlisted a long time ago.”

People have only been keeping track of mountain gorillas since 1959. We know they were a single population before human settlement split them in two about 5-10,000 years ago, but any population estimates from that time would be conjecture. Numbers during this millennium are difficult to compare to those of the 20th century because gorillas were classified as a single species until 2001.

The recent population increase alone would have justified downlisting the subspecies even further if it weren’t for the quality of their available habitat—less than 800 square kilometers and projected to keep declining due to legal and illegal human activities.

“The mountain gorilla will remain a conservation-dependent species for the foreseeable future,” the Red List assessment authors wrote. “All IUCN best practice guidelines for great ape conservation should be implemented and effectively enforced throughout [its] range.”

In other words, Williamson says, “There is absolutely no room for complacency.”