STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Even with all of our technology, it's still a big world, and we're still learning about it. Experts say they've made a spectacular find in an isolated part of the Republic of Congo in Africa. It's a previously undiscovered population of Western Lowland Gorillas. The find more than doubles the number of lowland gorillas thought to be alive in central Africa, as NPR's John Nielsen reports.
JOHN NIELSEN: Two years ago researchers from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and Congolese wildlife experts started looking for gorillas in one of the least passable forests left on Earth. It's near the border between the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon.
Researchers had heard from people living nearby that there might be gorillas in these forests. If the researchers had found nothing, team leader Emma Stokes says she wouldn't have been surprised.
Ms. EMMA STOKES (Research Team Leader): We were worried about that, you know. This is a block of forest that not many people are walking around in. So we didn't really know in some bits of this area what we were going to find. I mean, we really didn't.
NIELSEN: They followed tracks, counted droppings and found gorilla nests, and every now and then after sitting on a platform for an hour or two Stokes would see a gorilla come out into a swamp and then another and then a whole family. And there are infants playing in the swamps, she said, and the perfect moment is sitting there seeing gorillas do what gorillas do.
In the end, says Stokes, they found more gorillas than she thought possible.
Ms. STOKES: I mean, we ran the analysis on this five times over. We weren't trusting the numbers we were getting, but numbers kept coming in high, whichever way you looked at it. However conservative you were the estimate, the numbers were still coming up very high.
NIELSEN: The discovery was announced at a meeting in the International Primatological Society in Edinburgh, Scotland. Steve Sanderson, CEO and president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said 125,000 gorillas live in these forests. That's more than the current world estimate for the species, which is somewhere between 50 and 100 thousand.
Mr. STEVE SANDERSON (Wildlife Conservation Society): We have found the mother lode of Western Lowland Gorillas. We had no idea that these great numbers and also densities - that is, numbers per square kilometer - were possible.
NIELSEN: Sanderson says the apes in the mother lode are not being killed by the things that have all wiped out gorilla populations in other parts of central Africa - wars, commercial poaching, massive logging operations and any number of diseases.
Mr. SANDERSON: Diseases led by but not limited to the Ebola virus have created big empty holes in the forest where gorillas used to be but are no longer.
NIELSEN: One of the main reasons these newly found gorillas have been avoiding these fates is obvious to anyone who's ever spent time in the swampy forest known as the green abyss, like Richard Ruggiero of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who studied gorillas and elephants for 15 years in central Africa. He didn't help with this census but he knows the area well.
Mr. RICHARD RUGGIERO (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): We call it the green abyss because we didn't know about it. And you go into it and it's a world unto itself. It's, you know, these swamp environments are extremely difficult to get along in. There's literally no place to pitch a tent and sleep. You have to now walk on roots and in slippery places.
NIELSEN: This is a notoriously difficult place to count anything. But even if the census numbers turn out to be a little high, Ruggiero says it's still an amazing find. He says that right now there aren't any logging operations in these forests, which means that roads are all but nonexistent. That in turn means there hasn't been much poaching or subsistence hunting. Basically there aren't many humans here at all, he says, but that may be about to change.
In recent years, Ruggiero says, the government of the Republic of Congo has started to sell the right to log these forests.
Mr. RUGGIERO: Where there are natural resources in Africa, the rush to exploit them is at a pace that no one even dreamt possible. It's horrific, frankly. The value of this announcement of this large populations is hopefully people will realize this is a chance to get there before the other guys do and to figure out a better way to plan, if you will, to manage the resource, if you will, than leaving it up to people with chainsaws and bulldozers. And that story tells itself and it's a sad story.
NIELSEN: Steve Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society says the government of the Republic of Congo is considering a plan to turn a big part of this forested area into a wildlife park.
Mr. SANDERSON: This new park of 125,000 estimated gorillas found, this new park has 73,000. So it's a big deal. And the establishment and maintenance of the park are difficult but certainly not impossible.
NIELSEN: Sanderson also says there are ways to save gorillas that won't be protected by a park. In recent years his group has helped big logging operations in other parts of the Republic of Congo learn to harvest trees sustainably and to limit poaching operations that rely on logging road.
John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.
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INSKEEP: They were hard to find but these gorillas are not camera shy, and you can watch a video of them eating, playing and generally goofing around at NPR.org.