Harambe: A rallying cry
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Once a year, it seems, a public uproar mounts over the loss of another wildlife icon. Last July we lost Cecil the Lion, a popular Zimbabwe park attraction, that was lured off his reservation and shot by a Wisconsin dentist. Last Saturday, a prized 17 year-old silverback gorilla, Harambe, was shot by Cincinnati Zoo keepers after a young child tumbled into his enclosure.  While deeply saddened by Harambe’s death, I believe remorse and recriminations should be channeled into productive action.       

The time and energy spent re-hashing this tragedy can be better utilized protecting the gorillas still living in the wild today. These endangered species endure a combination of natural and man-made threats, including war, hunting, habitat destruction, and disease.  Conservation groups including the Humane Society, World Wildlife Fund, Wild Chimpanzee Foundation, Mbeli Bai Study, and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund have spent years protecting gorilla and chimpanzee populations in Central Africa. They need our help.       

A comprehensive six step program should be implemented now:       

First, we should expand existing protected areas and create new national parks near gorilla and chimpanzee colonies. Liberia has pledged to preserve 30% of their forests by 2030 while Gambia has promised to protect 15% of their forests by 2020. The international community must hold these “host” countries accountable for their conservation efforts. US entities who conducted bio-medical testing on primates in Africa, should continue support for the animals they profited from.

Second, we need to foster “bio-monitoring” of the gorillas – where populations live, the stability or decline of populations, the threats to survival, the development of protocols for data collection, and the training of local ecologists.        

Third, we must bolster local law enforcement.  Of the 800 park rangers deployed in the Congo basin, 140 have been killed in the line of duty. New weapons, resources, and technology has to be shared with these agencies to eradicate the hunting of primates for food – the bush meat market. Commercial hunting for wild animals used for meat, so-called bushmeat, has become the biggest and most immediate threat to African wildlife.

Fourth, environmental-friendly use of natural resources has to be encouraged – through sustainable mining, logging, and cocoa industries in these African countries. Tree nurseries and tree plantings must comprise a forest stewardship program. An alternative economy – ecotourism- should be fostered to offset revenue derived from Bush meat poaching.        

Fifth, we should create a community-based “eco guard patrol program” where data on trans-boundary bush meat markets is tracked by measuring the level of consumption over extended periods of time in families and villages. Bush meat alternatives such as fish, chicken, snail, and goat should be widely introduced. Such projects would provide communities with an alternative source of protein and income.        

Sixth, awareness and educational programs must be expanded in surrounding communities. Poster exhibits, newsletters, leaflets, interactive workshops, apprentice research programs, natural and cultural heritage plays, and partnering with an international network of schools have all shown great promise.          

The death of Cecil the Lion generated millions of dollars for wildlife research. Hopefully what happened to Harambe will increase awareness of and fundraising efforts for the endangered African lowland gorilla. The name “Harambe” is Kenyan for a “rallying cry.”  Implementing these steps should serve as a rallying cry sounded on behalf of these gorillas. And then perhaps someday we won’t have to resort to raising these magnificent creatures in zoos to ensure the survival of the species.      

Richardson is a former governor of New Mexico, United Nations Ambassador, and founder of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement which continues to champion animal rights and wildlife conservation.  The Center recently unveiled new strategic initiatives to preserve African chimpanzee, elephant, lion, and rhino populations. For more information, please go to richardsondiplomacy.org