Wild baby gorillas may be increasingly at risk from poachers, say authorities at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where undercover rangers saved an infant from the black market just last week. It was the fourth rescue of a poached baby gorilla since April, the highest number in a single year on record.

"If four have been caught since April, the question is how many have been missed?" park spokeswoman LuAnne Cadd says in an email to MNN. "How many more are being captured and sold? Are we just getting better at catching them, or has the trafficking increased? We don't have answers for this, but four in seven months is far too many."

The latest rescue introduced the world to Shamavu, a year-old lowland gorilla whose family was likely killed so poachers could take him. Posing as buyers, the Virunga rangers drove eight hours in a hired vehicle to meet the poachers, who demanded $40,000 for Shamavu. Instead, they may get up to 10 years in prison.

That's little solace for Shamavu and his remaining wild relatives, though. According to a statement issued Tuesday by park warden Emmaneul de Merode, recent evidence suggests the gorilla trade is growing. "We are very concerned about a growing market for baby gorillas that is feeding a dangerous trafficking activity in rebel-controlled areas of eastern DRC," he says.

Two other baby lowland gorillas were rescued in April and June of this year, one of which later died. A young mountain gorilla was also confiscated in August, followed by Shamavu last week. Gorillas are in the top category of protected species in the DRC, Cadd says, and the punishment ranges from one to 10 years, depending whether any gorillas were killed. But while such killings are common, they're not easy to prove in court, explains the ranger who led last week's sting operation.

"It's very likely that the mother and other gorillas were killed, because it's very difficult to take a baby gorilla from its family," says Christian Shamavu, the rescuer and namesake of Shamavu the gorilla, in Tuesday's press release. "The poachers will never admit to this, though," he adds, since that would bring stiffer penalties.

"Shamavu" the gorilla poses with Virunga park ranger Christian Shamavu after his rescue.

While tips often lead authorities to poachers, the buyers are much more elusive, Cadd says. It's unclear who they are, although experts suspect "disreputable zoos, or wealthy people who have personal menageries of exotic animals."

Shamavu the gorilla may be safe from poachers and unscrupulous zookeepers, but his troubles are far from over. "Like all the infant gorillas we see immediately after confiscation, he was extremely tense and stressed, holding his legs and arms tight up against his body, and turning his head away when he got too frightened," Jan Ramer of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project says in the press release. Rescued baby gorillas are often injured from the ropes poachers tie around their hands, feet and waists, and many are also ill, but Shamavu "appears to be quite healthy," Ramer adds.

The MGVP keeps rescued baby gorillas in quarantine for 30 days to conduct health checks, and then typically sends them to nearby gorilla sanctuaries. But Shamavu is also getting 24-hour care because he's "too young and vulnerable to be left alone," according to the VNP's blog. "If you can imagine a human one-and-a-half year old, this baby is in a similar stage of life, and he needs some consistency in care in order to bond and feel safe. He's lost his entire gorilla family and the world that he knew in the forest. It will take some time to adjust."

Virunga National Park "is almost entirely reliant on outside donors, both large and small," Cadd says, and Shamavu has added an extra burden on its limited finances. "We rescued him, but now we need to care for him, something that wasn't in any budget," she says. The park is taking donations to help pay for Shamavu's food, medicine, quarantine and other costs, as well as for broader projects, such as a fund to support widows of fallen rangers and a program to hunt poachers with bloodhounds.

Eastern lowland gorillas, also known as Grauer's gorillas, are listed on the IUCN Red List of endangered species, with fewer than 4,000 individuals left in the wild, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. That's down from an estimated 17,000 in 1995, largely due to poaching, habitat loss and fragmentation, and years of violent civil war throughout the region.

For more information, check out the Virunga National Park's website. And for a closer look at Shamavu, see the video and photos below:

All photos and video courtesy of LuAnne Cadd/Virunga National Park

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Black market for baby gorillas is growing
A sting operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo nabs poachers who were trying to sell a young gorilla for $40,000, the fourth such incident this year.