Rwanda's park rangers, however, backed by international conservation groups and often working with minimal pay, managed to safeguard the gorillas and the Virunga reserve as best they could. Squatters eventually were persuaded to leave the national park, human latrines were cleaned up and sick gorillas were darted, injected with antibiotics and protected against measles with human vaccines provided by UNICEF, said Ruth Keesling, a Denver-based gorilla activist who has helped provide veterinary care for the animals over the past two decades. Today the efforts are paying off. Scores of baby gorillas scamper through the park's stands of wild celery and blackberries, and health problems from mange to measles are largely under control. Two adult silverbacks died earlier this year, park guides say, but while one suffered some kind of unidentified illness, the other appeared to die simply of old age.
Tourists, once allowed to touch the gorillas, now are kept a minimum of 20 feet away to prevent the spread of colds and diseases. Visitors, brought into the park in small groups, are also limited to no more than an hour a day with the gorillas to keep stress levels low.
"I think we have a situation that's relatively stable if we can keep the politicians out of it," Keesling said.
Politics, however, for once seems on the gorillas' side. Congo and Rwanda last week signed a peace deal aimed in part at ending the conflict around the Virungas. The three area governments are beginning to cooperate on conservation issues, with hopes of establishing coordinated park patrols, particularly in war-worn Congo, Kyitare said.
"You can't protect gorillas in Rwanda without protecting them in Congo as well," he noted.
The gorillas still face plenty of threats. With the already small population divided into two geographically separated groups, some young gorillas are being born with webbed hands and feet, signs of inbreeding, Keesling said. Even more worrisome, Rwanda's population of 8 million people, crammed into a hilly nation the size of Massachusetts, is expected to double in the next 20 years, creating social and political pressure to divvy up gorilla habitat for farmland.
Tourism could help. The gorillas, Rwanda's only major tourist attraction, were the country's third-largest source of foreign income in the late 1980s, behind coffee and tea, according to Eugene Rutagarama, the former deputy director of the national park system.
Tourism is now rebuilding, and with hundreds of foreign visitors a month handing over $250 each to see the gorillas, the government has a powerful new incentive to protect them. Guards now keep an eye on the gorillas at all times, not just when tourists come to visit, and international conservation groups are helping pay guard salaries in Congo, where the situation remains too unsettled to permit tourism yet.
This year, as the region celebrates the 100th anniversary of German explorer Robert von Berenge's first scientific description of the mountain gorillas, experts say there is reason to hope that the desperately endangered animals will continue holding their own.
"The number of gorillas has increased. We're getting money from tourism. The situation is calm," Kyitare said. "That doesn't mean the challenges aren't still there. But right now things aren't too bad."
Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune