Time and time again, the planet’s great apes have displayed their intelligence through reasoning and even architecture. However last week, two young mountain gorillas in Rwanda showed just how smart they were by finding and dismantling a trap set by poachers that had previously killed a member of their family group. According to conservationists, this is the first time such actions have been seen.
“This is absolutely the first time that we’ve seen juveniles doing that … I don’t know of any other reports in the world of juveniles destroying snares,” Veronica Vecellio, gorilla program coordinator at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund‘s Karisoke Research Center, told National Geographic.“We are the largest database and observer of wild gorillas … so I would be very surprised if somebody else has seen that.”
Despite Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park being a wildlife refuge, poaching is still a problem. The snares, set by hunters in the region, are intended for antelope and other forms of game, however young apes are known to get accidentally caught in them. While adults are normally strong enough to get out of them, younger apes aren’t so lucky and often die. That was what happened to a young infant named Ngwino, who was found too late by workers from Karisoke, and later died of snare-related wounds. Deep lacerations had sliced open her leg and gangrene had set in.
Due to the illegality of hunting gorillas, the hunters often leave them to die, not wanting to be caught selling or in possession of the body. For those of you that don’t know, a snare is often attached to a branch and camouflaged to fool animals. If an animal sets off the trap, the branch springs upward, closing the noose around the prey. Staff from the Research Centre often find and dismantle the snares due to the risk, especially as mountain gorillas face “a very high risk of extinction in the wild.” However two young gorillas opted to take matters into their own hands.
On Tuesday tracker John Ndayambaje spotted a trap very close to the Kuryama gorilla clan. He moved in to deactivate the snare, but a silverback named Vubu grunted, cautioning Ndayambaje to stay away. Instead two juveniles—Rwema, a male; and Dukore, a female; both about four years old—ran toward the trap. According to Ndayambaje, “Rwema jumped on the bent tree branch and broke it, while Dukore freed the noose.” The pair then spied another snare nearby—one the tracker himself had missed—and destroyed that trap as well. Vecellio believes this wasn’t the first time the young gorillas had performed such teamwork. “They were very confident,” she said. “They saw what they had to do, they did it, and then they left.”