In Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park poachers set thousands of snares to trap wildlife for meat. Inadvertently mountain gorillas — listed as critically endangered — get caught in the traps, and the young often die due to wounds or starvation. These sort of scenes are commonly witnessed by trackers working in the area to dismantle the snares, an uphill battle most of the time. What was startling though was a display of ingeniousness few cared to think was possible. Days after a young mountain gorilla was killed by a trap, trackers saw how a pair of four-year old gorillas worked together in coordination to dismantle a trap from the same area.
“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,” said Veronica Vecellio, gorilla program coordinator at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund‘s Karisoke Research Center, located in the reserve where the event took place.
Thousands of snares litter Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. The traps are intended for antelope and other species. Gorillas aren’t the target, but get trapped also. Adults most of the time can spring themselves loose, but the young which are too weak often get killed.
The makeshift traps are are made by tying a noose to a branch or a bamboo stalk. The rope is kept tense by bending the branch, while a rock or stick is used to keep the trap in balance. Vegetation is added for camouflage. When an animal budgets the trigger (rock or stick), the trap is triggered: the branch springs back closing the noose around the pray. Lighter animals may actually be hoisted into the air.
Trackers from the Karisoke center scour the national park in search for the traps. One Tuesday, John Ndayambaje spotted a trap very close to the Kuryama gorilla clan. He moved in to dismantle the snare, but was greeted by an aggressive silverback adult which the trackers knew as Vubu. Vubu grunted in warning so the trackers kept away. Moments later, two young gorillas Rwema, a male; and Dukore, a female, ran towards the trap, frightening Ndayambaje. The two youngsters knew what they were doing, though. Swiftly and coordinated, the two gorillas dismantled the trap: Rwema jumped on the bent tree branch and broke it, while Dukore freed the noose.
Then, the two, joined by a third teenager called Tetero, proceeded to dismantle another trap — one Ndayambaje himself had missed.
The process was swift and coordinated, which lends the trackers to believe the gorillas proceeded with intent and knew the outcome. “They were very confident,” Vecellio said. “They saw what they had to do, they did it, and then they left.”
The care takers and researchers believe the gorillas may have seen some human trackers dismantle snares before and took a hint. The trackers don’t want to school other gorillas, however. “No we can’t teach them,” Vecellio told National Geographic. “We try as much as we can to not interfere with the gorillas. We don’t want to affect their natural behavior.”
It’s still amazing how these primates felt the danger these snares represented, learn to spot, then dismantle them. “Chimpanzees are always quoted as being the tool users, but I think, when the situation provides itself, gorillas are quite ingenious,” said Veterinarian Mike Cranfield, executive director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.