A family of gorillas. Juvenile gorillas have been dismantling poacher traps.

A family of gorillas. Photo: Shutterstock

Poachers in Rwanda often make use of simple traps to catch antelopes and other animals. The traps generally consist of a noose tied to a bamboo branch, which is held down with a rock while the noose is hidden. Yes, just like in a cartoon.

Although they aren’t meant to capture primates, they sometimes do, and pretty much any animal which trips the noose will be caught in it. Those primates, including gorillas, sometimes die in the traps, although adults are proven capable of breaking the trap apart and escaping. Juveniles haven’t been as lucky.

That, however, seems to be changing. Researchers at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund’s Karisoke Research Centre have witnessed groups of juvenile gorillas finding and dismantling the traps.

“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 conservationist Veronica Vecellio of the Karisoke Research Centre.

Generally one gorilla will break the bamboo branch while juveniles take apart the noose. The small groups of gorillas are pretty good at the process, and seem to go out of their way to take apart the traps. This has led the researchers to assume that this isn’t a new thing, but that the gorillas have been taking these traps apart for a while.

The group of gorillas first observed were from the Kuryama clan, who recently lost a juvenile member to one such trap. That loss may have spurred them to go out looking for the traps, having perhaps let their guard down after previous dismantling missions. Although this behavior has never been seen before, it could be simply because we haven’t been observing the gorillas at the right time.

This exciting discovery reinforces the intelligence of gorillas and their ability to use tools. It also shows an ability to conceptualize dangers created by humans, and take steps to mitigate those dangers rather than simply react to them.