How do you save critically endangered gorillas? One idea, currently being tested by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), is to introduce snails to Nigeria.

More specifically, snail farming. The idea is that snail farming could provide both a revenue stream and a new source of protein for Nigerians, making the poaching of gorillas less attractive.

As we wrote just a few weeks ago, gorillas—especially the critically endangered Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli)—face numerous threats in central Africa because the area is so poor. The gorillas are losing out to illegal logging, the bushmeat trade (poaching), mining and the charcoal trade, all of which could, according to the United Nations and Interpol, drive gorillas into extinction in as little as 15 years.

There are just 300 Cross River gorillas in existence, so every poached or lost animal is potentially devastating to the species.

"People living near Cross River gorillas have trouble finding alternative sources of income and food and that's why they poach," James Deutsch, WCS's Africa program director, said in a prepared statement. "We are working with them to test many livelihood alternatives, but perhaps the most promising, not to mention novel, is snail farming."

WCS picked eight former gorillas poachers and set them up to raise African giant snails (Archachatina marginata), a local delicacy. With funding by the Great Apes Program of the Arcus Foundation, WCS helped construct snail pens, then stocked each pen with 230 giant snails. The snails breed quickly, and should yield a harvest of 3,000 snails per year.

According to WCS, this should end up being a fairly profitable enterprise for local farmers. Annual costs are estimated at just $87 per farmer, with profits around $413 per year.

The meat of one gorilla, says the WCS, would net a poacher around $70.

WCS previously helped create Takamanda National Park in Cameroon, which safeguards a third of the world's Cross River gorilla population.

Photos: Cross River Gorilla, via Wikipedia. Snails courtesy Wildlife Conservation Society.