Poaching, deforestation and the dreaded Ebola virus have taken a terrible toll on populations of the four remaining gorilla species. Now, in an effort to help save our primate cousins from extinction, the United Nations Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals has declared 2009 the "Year of the Gorilla."

Three of the four species of gorilla are considered critically endangered, with just 700 mountain gorillas, 300 Cross River gorillas, and 5,000 eastern lowland gorillas left. The fourth species, the Western lowland gorilla, is critically endangered in some of its home countries, although the total population is much higher, at around 150,000.

All four species face declining populations, with threats ranging from the bushmeat trade, poaching for traditional medicine, habitat destruction from logging or the charcoal trade (an important source of fuel in Africa), and disease.

Luckily, the Year of the Gorilla is already off to a good start. This week, the 10 nations with gorilla populations agreed to examine the effectiveness of their anti-poaching laws and, hopefully, improve their implementation. Some of the money pledged for the Year of the Gorilla campaign will go toward educating judges so they understand the need to strictly enforce current anti-poaching laws.

Other actions to be funded by the YoG campaign include training park rangers, supporting scientific research, raising awareness of the gorillas' threats, and developing alternative sources of income (such as eco-tourism) for people living near gorilla populations. The UN hopes to raise more than $600,000 to support these efforts.

Story by John Platt. This article originally appeared in "Plenty' in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008