Gorillas Thwart Poachers: Should Animals Be Trained to Participate in Their Own Conservation?

Candice Gaukel Andrews August 27, 2013 32

Gorillas are considered highly intelligent and share with us a full range of emotions, including love, hate, fear, grief, joy, greed, generosity, pride, shame, empathy and jealousy. ©Eric Rock

Those of us who have been lucky enough to share our lives with myriad pets over the years need no further proof that nonhuman animals have a high degree of intelligence. Scientists, however, do not have the luxury of going on gut feelings. They need to provide hard evidence, which, in turn, could support legislation for species’ protection and conservation.

While antipoaching laws have helped in reducing the illegal wildlife trade, wildlife crime is still the largest direct threat to the future of many of the world’s most threatened animals. That’s why recent reports out of Rwanda that document mountain gorillas outsmarting poachers by dismantling snares have conservationists and antipoaching advocates excited.

Could this mean that more gorillas—and other animals—can be taught or trained to help in their own preservation?

Juvenile mountain gorillas have been observed dismantling a snare. ©Patrick J. Endres

Deadly traps

Poachers build animal snares by tying a rope noose to a branch or a bamboo stalk. Using the rope, they pull the branch downward, bending it. They then employ a bent stick or rock to hold the noose to the ground, keeping the branch tense. A sprinkling of vegetation camouflages the noose. When an animal bumps or budges the stick or rock, the branch springs upward, closing the noose around the prey. If the creature is light enough, it will be hoisted into the air. Bush-meat hunters are known to set thousands of rope-and-branch snares in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, where mountain gorillas live. The traps are mainly intended for antelope and other species, but they sometimes capture mountain gorillas, which are critically endangered, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Less than a year ago, conservationists in Rwanda witnessed two juvenile mountain gorillas working together to find and destroy snares. Veronica Vecellio, the gorilla program coordinator at The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund’s Karisoke Research Center, located in the reserve where the event took place, said it was the first time they had ever seen or heard of juveniles destroying snares.

While adults are generally strong enough to free themselves, young mountain gorillas often aren’t. Two years ago an ensnared infant named Ngwino, found too late by Karisoke workers, died of snare-related wounds. Her shoulder had been dislocated during her escape attempts, and gangrene had set in after the ropes had cut deep into her leg.

Lively gorillas

Every day, trackers from the Karisoke Research Center comb the forest for snares, dismantling them to protect the mountain gorillas. But just months ago, when tracker John Ndayambaje spotted a trap very close to the Kuryama gorilla clan, a silverback named Vubu grunted, cautioning Ndayambaje to stay away. Then, suddenly two juveniles—Rwema, a male, and Dukore, a female; both about four years old—ran toward the trap. As tracker Ndayambaje and a few tourists watched, Rwema jumped on the bent tree branch and broke it while Dukore freed the noose. The pair then spied another snare nearby—one, in fact, the tracker had missed—and raced for it. Joined by a third gorilla, a teenager named Tetero, Rwema and Dukore destroyed that trap, as well. The speed with which the dismantling of the snares took place made gorilla program coordinator Vecellio think this wasn’t the first time the young primates had outsmarted poachers.

Is it ethical to teach gorillas how to help in their own conservation? ©Eric Rock

Many who work in the field weren’t totally shocked by the witnessed events. Veterinarian Mike Cranfield, executive director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, speculated that the gorillas might have learned how to destroy traps by watching the Karisoke Research Center’s trackers. Because of these animals’ intelligence and their success, some who work to save mountain gorillas before they go extinct have even suggested teaching more of the apes how to do this task. Others, however, such as Vecellio, believe that actively instructing the primates would be against the center’s ethos. Training gorillas to take any kind of action would be interfering with their natural behavior.

Do you think that intelligent animals on the brink of extinction should be encouraged—with training by humans—to help in their own preservation? Or should such actions never be condoned, even if they could keep a species from disappearing forever?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,




  1. Gillian Gaspard September 24, 2013 at 8:05 am - Reply

    Caribbean Greetings. Yes, it is possible that these animals can be taught to help in their own preservation. Gorillas have always been known to be very intelligent animals.

  2. Vera Novais September 17, 2013 at 9:25 am - Reply

    I think that gorillas learning from observation isn’t so wrong, but to actively instruct animals to do something means that soon we won’t have any truely wild animal, and once again human kind would be interfering with nature.

  3. Fiona Gordon September 14, 2013 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    Not too long ago I went on walking trail in a wilderness area. It was a leave-no-trace trail experience, so whatever you take in, you take out – you even pour your water away before you leave, giving it back to the wilderness – the whole ethos is to leave the area as it was before we walked into it. But even with our best intentions, on our first night whilst bedding down for camp, an impala running from two hyena, could not make it past us humans huddled on the ledge right in the way of its escape path, and so the antelope hurled itself off the cliff edge just before it would have to run through camp, and into the slow flowing riverbed below. By doing this it broke it’s back in the fall. The hyena did come round later that evening to dispatched it. So even though we try our best sometimes to simply be observers and not influence the wildlife around us, we are just so cumbersome in the wilderness. I think as attractive as it sounds to teach the gorillas to help save themselves, we will be imprinting our humanness again, which I fear can only lead to other problems. The fact that these awesome creatures learnt the experience simply by being observant is incredible.

  4. John LaPolla September 14, 2013 at 12:45 pm - Reply

    That is so great to hear. Hope these guys continue to learn and continue to destroy these traps. May be we should try to teach this species to do this would be a plus for them.

  5. Iestyn Thomas September 14, 2013 at 12:44 pm - Reply

    It seems the gorillas don’t need any training from humans as they can identify and destroy the traps already. Concentrating effort to increase man power on the ground to locate and destroy more traps is a better use of resources, especially if those in the national park believe the skills has been “learnt” by watching the trackers destroy traps, it may be a superb example of cooperative working by different species

  6. Sue Anthony September 14, 2013 at 12:43 pm - Reply

    Are we not all entitle to defend ourselves from those that seek to, through illegal activities, kill or cause harm to us or our families or is this just certain species?

    I can’t help but think of the Satchi and Satchi PR campaign for Sea Shepherd that shows whales and dolphins with an undercarriage of armourments and titled “Until they can defend themselves we will”.

  7. David Barrett September 14, 2013 at 12:42 pm - Reply

    What are we valuing when we value “natural behaviour” in this way? It doesn’t seem to be life. Granted, the gorillas seem to be taking the problem into their own hands, with or without us.

  8. Heidi Lovett September 14, 2013 at 12:41 pm - Reply

    Very interesting bioethics question. There is already some communication between the gorillas and the managers (“…a silverback named Vubu grunted, cautioning Ndayambaje to stay away.”), so one could argue that training (if it could actually be effective) is not much different. However, it seems to me that they are transferring the skills (“training”) themselves and it would be best to focus efforts on training the local humans not to hunt by snare in the National Park.

  9. Renee Covert September 14, 2013 at 12:40 pm - Reply

    Do species learn from other species naturally in the wild? Learning is frequently done by watching, copying, experimenting, modifying method, and if humans can model a self defense behavior knowing gorillas are watching it may help the species to advocate for itself. Is this interfering or helping? Perhaps if the gorillas have the intelligence to watch and learn then it is natural. Efforts to educate both species to prevent illegal and unethical poaching, hunting or capturing.

  10. Gary Nickerson September 14, 2013 at 12:39 pm - Reply

    Thanks, posted this on NYC & NYS Sierra Club Facebook feeds.

  11. Bob Mulvihill September 14, 2013 at 12:38 pm - Reply

    Good points, Caroline. Plus, it would seem they already are learning even when we are not intentionally teaching.

  12. Caroline Ailanthus September 14, 2013 at 12:37 pm - Reply

    I’d say poaching interferes with their natural behavior a lot more…these animals are not museum pieces that must be conserved in their original state no matter what. They are thinking, learning beings whose behavior is going to reflect their changing life circumstances in one way or another. We should respect them as such. Leaving their behavior unchanged simply isn’t an option–because their environment is changing. If we can help them change their behavior so they can survive better, then we should.

  13. Ronda Roaring September 14, 2013 at 12:35 pm - Reply

    Actually, Laura, from a biological perspective humans are animals. As far as Candice’s question about teaching other animals to defend themselves against humans who wish them ill, put yourself in their position. If there were gorillas who wished to kill you, wouldn’t you want a friendly gorilla to help you defend yourself?

  14. Tajudeen AMUSA September 14, 2013 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    This is really exciting..I think the intentional teaching should commence. No character is cast in marble or can we even unlearn what has been learnt?

  15. Laura Impastato September 14, 2013 at 12:33 pm - Reply

    Maybe it’s time for our animal friends to fight back i.e. lions and tigers could eat poachers; elephants could stomp them etc. I don’t know about the training aspect. I think animals could follow their own instincts. They are often smarter than we humans!

  16. Robert Bean September 14, 2013 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    If the poachers find out, they will destroy the gorillas responsible. When conservationists started removing rhino horns to slow / stop the poaching of rhino horns, they killed the rhinos for spite and to make a statement that it would not stop them.

  17. Ravi Damodaran September 14, 2013 at 12:29 pm - Reply

    Animals anyway have a natural survival instinct and even a rat will fight back when cornered! Wild animals can not be trained without entrapment and confinement in ‘training camps” Training humans to avoid man-animal conflict would be a wiser and saner approach and more achievable given our communication technology. Also the end does not always justify the means.

  18. Janos Borbely September 14, 2013 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    I think it is more purposeful to properly implement CITES and extend it with appropriate measures to eliminate the parties involved in poaching than teaching few gorillas for whatever kind of tricks.

    On the other hand, as soon as we teach wild species, they won’t be wild anymore.

  19. Debra Clinton September 14, 2013 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    If it increases the chances of their survival – YES, ABSOLUTELY!!! If we can figure out a way to teach lions, elephants and rhinos too – then let’s do it! Humans are their greatest threat, so why shouldn’t GOOD humans help them even the playing field???

  20. Cathy Solomon September 14, 2013 at 12:26 pm - Reply

    Find me a group of Jane Goodalls.

  21. Kirk Parker September 14, 2013 at 12:25 pm - Reply

    I am interested to see where this discussion lands… I agree it would be interfering with their natural behavior to train them in “poacher protection”, but it is pretty comical to hear that they are dismantling the snares the poachers put out! Well played gorillas, well played…

  22. Judith L. Osterman September 10, 2013 at 10:54 pm - Reply

    maybe they figured it out themselves. anyway, if they can learn just by watching humans from a distance, its not the same thing as “training” them. they already have the necessary motivation, & comprehend all aspects of the situation; just reproduce the conditions that were present when spontaneous learning took place.

  23. Francine Ballantyne September 9, 2013 at 12:29 pm - Reply

    Training may be possible for endangered birds and aquatic mammals, known for mimicry and problem solving. However unless the defensive behaviour is widespread or actually exists the training of others species will be difficult.

  24. Debra Clinton September 4, 2013 at 9:10 am - Reply

    YES!!! If this is the best chance of their survival, then absolutely! While I agree that we should avoid putting man’s finger on nature, this is CRITICAL to their survival, so I’m all for it! And why shouldn’t we be learning FROM THEM as well?

  25. Alexis A Schulman, DVM August 30, 2013 at 1:12 am - Reply

    Absolutely! One man’s warped ethics should not stop efforts to save a species. We underestimate the intelligence of animals and creating a simbiotic relationship between 2 species (man and ape) towards achieving survival is not unnatural or unethical

  26. Wendy Taylor August 29, 2013 at 6:42 pm - Reply

    What would we rather be? Purists that do not teach the gorillas to protect themselves with the result that more animals die horrible deaths and head towards extinction? Or pragmatists that want the gorillas to live and so teach them how to dismantle snares? What would the decision be if we were talking about humans instead of gorillas? I think it is incredible hubris to take the first approach just because it is a gorilla and not a human. Ethically and morally the choice is simple. Teach the gorillas to help save themselves. An equivalent question to consider is if a drug was being tested that had incredibly high success with curing breast cancer. Would it be right in the name of science to continue giving a placebo to the control group, knowing that they would not be cured?

  27. penelope oppenheim August 29, 2013 at 1:43 pm - Reply

    yes, they should be trained and poachers should be killed, by navy seals or the equivalent – for once, my tax dollar should be spent on a worthwhile purpose – a haughty individual at Ol Pejeta, where I spent 11 days, told me no way should rhino horns be removed, and this spring a mother was killed(before tourist season) by poachers – wheels within wheels – train them to remove traps and stealthily kill poachers

  28. Tim Merriman August 29, 2013 at 8:23 am - Reply

    Thanks for a great article. We had read of these incidents. You ask an important question. I think they should be taught to dismantle snares. We have habituated them to tours for our own benefit and the value it has in protecting them with guards, guides and research. Further limited training for self-protection seems only right and ethically reasonable.

    We train interpretive guides in Rwanda at Nyungwe National Park and know the story of conservation in that nation pretty well. They are making amazing progress on varied fronts at Volcanoes National Park, Nyungwe and Akagera. Gorilla and chimp tracking are wonderful ways to help people understand our closest primate relatives while putting money in conservation and local communities to broaden the network of protection. Thanks for sharing the story.

    Tim Merriman

  29. Adriana Manchen August 28, 2013 at 10:04 pm - Reply

    I am definitely in favor of teaching/training species to help preserve themselves. I am a wildlife biologist myself and usually opt for the non-interference method as well. However, in the case where it might actually save them from extinction, I think it is imperative that those on the side of animals help them as much as possible. Legislation will take too long and corruption will always be an issue – at least until people change their ways.

  30. Brenda Beatty August 28, 2013 at 12:33 pm - Reply


  31. Cyndy August 28, 2013 at 11:04 am - Reply

    Teach them and teach them well of course. Their “natural” surroundings have been redefined as dangerous to them because of human impacts. Teach them if possible to protect themselves.

  32. Rosanna DeShetler August 28, 2013 at 5:56 am - Reply

    Resoundingly YES! If they can be taught this i would definitely say yes. Its pretty obvious that despite our best efforts humans cannot succeed completely in this.

    It makes no sense to just sit by and watch an animal go extinct. What purpose would the researchers have then with no animals to research? Extinction would make all their behavioral studies obsolete.

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