MBELI BAI GORILLA STUDY
A Project of Woodland Park Zoo's Partners for Wildlife
About the Project
Established in 1995, the Mbeli Bai Study has monitored large mammals visiting a naturally occurring 13-hectare large, swampy forest clearing in the southwest of Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, Republic of Congo, with minimum levels of disturbance. The Mbeli Bai study has provided unique insights into the social organization and behavior of the elusive western gorilla. The continuous monitoring of individuals (over 400 gorillas) provides essential baseline life history data of this critically endangered flagship species.
The Mbeli Bai Study was established with the goal of providing much needed information on the population dynamics and demography of western gorillas. Long-term studies are essential because gorillas are long-lived mammals. The data collected enables scientists to assess the vulnerability of populations to threats and predict their ability to recover from decline, and therefore formulate effective conservation strategies. But the program has multiple roles besides the research and conservation of western lowland gorillas. The project is also responsible for local capacity building, conservation education and habitat and wildlife protection.
Population in Decline
Western lowland gorilla populations have in recent years undergone a dramatic decline and the species is currently classified as critically endangered. Commercial hunting for bushmeat, loss of habitat through increased logging activities, and diseases such as Ebola hemorrhagic fever have all had an impact on the population, persisting throughout the region.
The Mbeli Bai Study began Club Ebobo, a conservation education program in the schools surrounding the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in 1998. Activities have expanded and Club Ebobo is now conducted in four villages. Club Ebobo sessions are held in French, Lingala, and recently in a pygmy language, on a monthly basis. Classes are separated with the younger children doing more basic games and work, whereas older children engage in more conservation-oriented lessons. Local teachers are also included in the conservation education through a training workshop where they learn to use an environmental education activity book that includes 11 lessons designed to encourage creativity among students.
The Bai of Africa
“Bai” refers to swampy forest clearings that dot the landscape through Africa’s rainforests. Mbeli Bai is a clearing in the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo. Detailed studies are underway there on western lowland gorillas, endangered forest elephants, sitatungas and forest buffaloes. Besides continuous bai monitoring, the Mbeli Bai Study aims to understand the importance of forest clearings and determine the ecological factors (e.g., density of fruiting trees, aquatic and terrestrial herbaceous vegetation) influencing gorilla and large mammal density and protection.
About Western Lowland Gorillas
In the Field
All major life history (births, deaths, weaning, documenting of life stages) and transfer events are noted and entered into a gorilla demographic database. This allows for easy access to reports on group parameters and life history characteristics (such as reproductive success and group dispersals) to be generated. Long-term data on the large Mbeli gorilla population is now available to be analyzed to investigate the resilience to threats such as habitat disturbance and disease as well as phenological patterns.
At the Zoo
In 1979, Woodland Park Zoo was the first zoo to create and build a naturalistic outdoor exhibit for gorillas, a model other zoos around the world now emulate. The zoo has long been a participant in the Western Lowland Gorilla Species Survival Plan, successfully raising nine gorillas to adulthood since the late 1970s. WPZ gorilla keeper Hugh Bailey traveled to Mbeli Bai in 2005 to spend a month assisting researchers and observing Club Ebobo’s educational programs. Today, three separate western lowland gorilla troops inhabit the exhibit at the zoo.
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