The western lowland gorilla
Photo: Heather Paul (Flickr)

In the realm of Good News Thursday, gorillas are faring better than scientists previously thought—much better, in fact.

A new study published in Science Advances shows that the giant ape’s numbers throughout western equatorial Africa could be twice as large as researchers believed. A team of researchers from around the world—including organizations like The Jane Goodall Institute and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research—examined numbers of the western lowland gorilla subspecies, by far the most populous branch of the gorilla family tree, in five countries from 2003 to 2013.

The team checked out 59 sites and discovered 361,900 gorillas were spread over Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon. Previous estimates pegged the population at 150,000 to 250,000 individuals. On-the-ground teams came to these conclusions after surveying nests—a whopping 12,524 of them.

Still, as great as this sounds, the new survey is quick to point out that gorilla numbers are falling. Fast. In the 10 years the gorillas were tracked, their population decreased by close to three percent a year. For now, the western lowland gorilla is definitely still “critically endangered.”

Most of the gorillas identified in the study live outside protected areas, so threats remains high—from poachers, deforestation, palm oil plantations, Ebola, and cultural traditions around eating gorilla meat. Their relatives to the east have have been hit hard in the past by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s civil war, and more recently by the mining industry.

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But where there are guards and favorable high-canopy habitat, gorillas congregate, per the study. For the most part, gorilla density decreases as human density increases. Ultimately, what gorillas need are safe habitats and better protections. With every male gorilla a poacher or palm plantation kills, a band loses an alpha and is forced to replace him with another, who often kills the youth and exacerbates an already-perilous situation.

Even good news comes with a dose of reality.