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 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.

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

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.

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,