All gorillas, regardless of subspecies, are considered Endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and wild born gorillas are banned from international trade by CITES (Conference on International Trade of Endangered Species). Under CITES, they are considered to be Appendix I species and therefore receive the highest level of international protection. Between 30,000 and 50,000 gorillas are estimated to remain in the wild.
Threats to their survival include destruction of habitat and poaching. The lands in which they are found are poor and densely populated; park land set aside for gorillas is often encroached upon by agriculture. Wire traps set by poachers for other game often ensnare gorillas. Their heads and hands are prized trophies.
Western lowland gorillas are part of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ Species Survival Program (SSP). Under the SSP, zoos exchange gorillas so that suitable family groups can be formed. There are presently more than 325 lowland gorillas in North American zoos. Since the first gorilla birth in a zoo in 1956, tremendous amounts of research on both captive and wild gorillas have revealed the social structure, habitat and nutrition requirements for successful breeding. Zoos are also working to allow as many infants as possible to be raised by their mothers instead of being hand-raised, so they can better learn natural gorilla behavior.
While zoos have made great strides in breeding gorillas in captivity, they have also worked to help gorillas in the wild, including adoption of a policy not accepting gorillas caught from the wild or “orphaned” gorilla infants. This practice serves to deter the illegal hunting of wild gorillas. In fact, no gorillas have been directly imported from the wild into North American zoos since 1972.
While there are currently no plans to reintroduce captive-born gorillas to the wild, gorillas in zoos function as a reserve if their numbers should be seriously diminished.