The world’s rarest great ape has found a safe haven in the mountains of the west central African nation of Cameroon. With guidance from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Cameroon’s prime minister, Ephraim Inoni, has created the world’s first sanctuary exclusively for the Cross River gorilla.

Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary spans only 19.5 square kilometers but contains an important segment of the Cross River gorilla population. The species’ range consists of 11 scattered sites in Cameroon and Nigeria. Of the estimated 300 or fewer Cross River gorillas that remain, approximately 20 live in the new reserve.

“The creation of this sanctuary is the fruit of many years of work in helping to protect the world’s rarest gorilla subspecies,” says Dr. Roger Fotso, director of WCS-Cameroon. Fotso and his colleagues worked in tandem with the Cameroon Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife in laying the groundwork for the sanctuary.

While many populations of gorillas are threatened by poachers, the gorillas of Kagwene have been protected by the local belief that the apes are people and therefore cannot be hunted or consumed.

Elsewhere, bushmeat hunting remains one of the biggest threats to Cross River gorillas, in addition to habitat loss. Farming, the building of roads, and the burning of forests by pastoralists all contribute to the fragmentation of their forest habitat.

To support the newly created sanctuary, WCS provided the government with an administration office, with funds from the United States Fish & Wildlife Service. The sanctuary is staffed by local residents, some of them former hunters. A field station has also been constructed to accommodate eco-guards, who will be posted by the government to monitor and protect the sanctuary.

“Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary provides us with a great example of how governmental agencies and conservation organizations can achieve lasting contributions to conservation,” said Dr. James Deutsch, WCS-Africa Director. “Hopefully, this and other sanctuaries like it will give us time to protect and learn more about the world’s rarest great ape.”

The Cross River gorilla, Gorilla gorilla diehli, is classified as Critically Endangered by IUCN’s Red List. It is one of two subspecies of western gorilla, the other being Gorilla gorilla gorilla, the western lowland gorilla. Eastern gorilla subspecies include the eastern lowland gorilla, Gorilla beringei graueri, and the famous mountain gorillas of the Virunga Mountains and southern Uganda, Gorilla beringei beringei.