Eastern gorillas are now one step away from extinction

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Eastern gorillas are sliding towards extinction, conservationists have warned as the primates were classed as critically endangered.

The gorillas found in East Africa have seen their fortunes worsen as a result of illegal hunting, with their status on the latest global Red List of Threatened Species changed from endangered to critically endangered - just one step away from extinction.

It means four out of the world's six great apes - humans' nearest relatives - are now critically endangered, according to the Red List produced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Zebra

Plains zebras have also declined by almost a quarter in the past 14 years as a result of illegal hunting and are now "near threatened" on the latest Red List update.

But there is better news elsewhere in the animal kingdom with one of the flagship species of conservation, giant pandas, seeing their status improve from "endangered" to "vulnerable", a lower category of risk.

The population has grown as a result of Chinese government efforts to conserve the species, with effective measures to protect and recreate forests, the IUCN said.

But it warned climate change was predicted to wipe out more than a third (35%) of the panda's bamboo habitat, which could reverse the gains made in the last two decades.

Panda

Populations of eastern gorillas, found in Rwanda, Uganda, and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), have nosedived in the past 20 years by more than 70%.

One of the two subspecies, the Grauer's gorilla which is only found in eastern DRC, has lost 77% of its population since 1994, with numbers falling from 16,900 to just 3,800 in 2015, the conservationists said.

The key threat to Grauer's gorillas is hunting, even though killing or capture of great apes is illegal.

The second subspecies, the mountain gorilla, which is found in the volcanic mountains which border Rwanda, Uganda and DRC and in a nearby area southwestern Uganda, has fared better and its numbers have increased to around 880 individuals.

Mountain gorilla

Among the great apes, the eastern gorilla, western gorilla, Bornean orangutan and Sumatran orangutan are now listed as critically endangered, while the chimpanzee and bonobo are both endangered.