Recovery Potential of a Western Lowland Gorilla Population following a Major Ebola Outbreak: Results from a Ten Year Study
Investigating the recovery capacity of wildlife populations following demographic crashes is of great interest to ecologists and conservationists. Opportunities to study these aspects are rare due to the difficulty of monitoring populations both before and after a demographic crash. Ebola outbreaks in central Africa have killed up to 95% of the individuals in affected western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) populations. Assessing whether and how fast affected populations recover is essential for the conservation of this critically endangered taxon. The gorilla population visiting Lokoué forest clearing, Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Republic of the Congo, has been monitored before, two years after and six years after Ebola affected it in 2004. This allowed us to describe Ebola's short-term and long-term impacts on the structure of the population. The size of the population, which included around 380 gorillas before the Ebola outbreak, dropped to less than 40 individuals after the outbreak. It then remained stable for six years after the outbreak. However, the demographic structure of this small population has significantly changed. Although several solitary males have disappeared, the immigration of adult females, the formation of new breeding groups, and several birth events suggest that the population is showing potential to recover. During the outbreak, surviving adult and subadult females joined old solitary silverbacks. Those females were subsequently observed joining young silverbacks, forming new breeding groups where they later gave birth. Interestingly, some females were observed joining silverbacks that were unlikely to have sired their infant, but no infanticide was observed. The consequences of the Ebola outbreak on the population structure were different two years and six years after the outbreak. Therefore, our results could be used as demographic indicators to detect and date outbreaks that have happened in other, non-monitored gorilla populations.