Lost in the Mist: The Fall of the Great Apes


As children, we were provided imagery of gorillas as being enormous, ancient beasts. King Kong reduced humankind to the size of helpless ants, while humans, consumed by a need to display power over nature and power over this “monster,” reduced Kong to a side show.  In the story of Kong, people do not do enough to stop the misunderstanding and wrongful actions toward this giant ape in time. In the stories we write now for our future, will we be able to stop the fall of great apes?

Last week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the eastern gorilla as critically endangered in their Red List of threatened species. In 1995, there were close to 17,000 in the wild.

Now, there are less than 5,000 eastern gorillas in the whole world. [IUCN]


Bushmeat demand, wildlife trade and other factors are plucking each gorilla individual from life on this earth. The population of Grauer’s Gorillas (eastern lowland gorillas) has been removed of 77% of their population since 1994. Overall, the eastern gorilla has lost 70% of its population over the past 20 years  12,000 individual gorillas, gone forever. The eastern mountain gorilla is the most critically endangered gorilla species with only about 300 mature individuals. That’s less than the amount of people who can fit on single flight of a Boeing 747 airplane.

The causes are many – hunting around mining sites, forest fragmentation, habitat loss, wildlife trafficking, hunting, climate change – it starts to sound like a sad repeated song played around the world, responsible for the greatest era of extinction in the past 65 million years. We are the cause.


The eastern gorilla, the largest living primate, sounds like a hurricane wind shredding through the jungle when “displaying,” or showing off to prevent competing males from taking over their harem of females. They sit with a unique awareness, eyes ever vigilant on the forest and their group. They are incredibly smart individuals, who are able to learn sign language and use tools. In 2012, a staff member of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund‘s Karisoke Research Center saw something unlike anything ever witnessed: several juvenile gorillas worked together to destroy snares after a poacher’s snare had killed one of their own days before.

Now, instead of just finding the best mates, foraging for food or raising their young, adaptation for gorillas means surviving being the constant target of those with weapons aiming to harm them or capture them, relentlessly.

The idea of losing great apes is so difficult to comprehend that when push comes to shove I think we will invest resources into conserving them. But they really are down to the wire.

– John Robinson, a primatologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society

Gorillas, the “ancient beasts” we fear and revere in our tv and movies, are not the only great ape species listed who suffer for the beastly nature of humanity. The Bornean and the Sumatran orangutan, and the western gorilla are all on a path toward extinction as well, and are listed as critically endangered. Bonobos are also endangered, as are the beloved chimpanzee. Great apes, the animals we share a most recent familial past with (and potentially a thrilling and fascinating future with), are fading from our world. Some estimates conclude that we have 10-15 years before these animals are gone entirely.

The gorilla, and other great apes, will disappear if we do nothing.


Jane Goodall, at the IUCN World Congress last week, discussed corruption in governments and corporations, who drive this devastation or do nothing to stop species loss. She also told us why we will not let it happen:

Unfortunately, the progress we are making is on greater awareness – overall the numbers [of apes]are still falling. It’s worst in Indonesia with palm oil and the orangutans, but we are now seeing palm oil move into Africa. We’re also seeing a resurgence of chimpanzees in the pet trade we thought that had more or less stopped. Some of the protected places are working well, some aren’t. We will lose more apes, but we are not going to lose.

– Jane Goodall

Ulengue after his release at Tchindzoulou Island.

It didn’t take an official listing by the IUCN for an awareness of the consequences of doing nothing to be known for those who understand conservation and the primates (along with other species) we need to protect. The Jane Goodall Institute coordinates CAP (Conservation Action Plan) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, working with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the Disney Conservation Fund, GRACE (Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education), Gorilla Doctors, and conservation planners with support from the Arcus Foundation. This project targets 66 million acres, roughly the size of Colorado, where 35,000 chimpanzees and 2,500 to 3,000 gorillas live. CAP works to engage these groups to collaborate in protecting critical ape habitats using community centered conservation, GIS (geographical information systems), land use planning, monitoring, rehabilitation and research in a holistic way. And it can save these animals.

We are driving our closest living relatives to extinction, which is sickening.

– Dr M Sanjanyan, VP at Conservation International.


Humanity’s relationship with great apes has been consistent over time; fear, intrigue and exploitation, culminating in tragedy. In Kong, there is one person who finds kindness and respect in fully knowing this creature. It may only take one person recognizing the wonders of the gorilla, and other primates, in order for others to pay attention. However, it will take all of us – billions of people who share this earth – to revive these species in time.

We can write our own story; each page bound by hope, each word inked by action. We will not let great apes fall. 

About Author

Ashley Sullivan is the Communications & Policy Officer at the Jane Goodall Institute, where she works to connect individuals with Dr. Goodall's vision, and the JGI mission. Ashley graduated Stony Brook University with a B.A. in Anthropology and a minor in Biology, and is currently pursuing a MS in Environmental Science & Policy at Johns Hopkins University. She has a varied background including conservation, art, communications, digital media, design, photography, and documentary filmmaking. Ashley believes in sharing information to empower and in the magic of storytelling to change hearts and minds. Through growing understanding, empathy, and justice, she believes it is possible to ignite positive change, every day.