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Rwanda's Mountain Gorillas Beating Survival Odds

Chicago Tribune
September 4, 2002
 
The baby gorilla hangs one-handed from a bamboo stalk, making faces at
another youngster below, then crashes to the ground, somersaulting
through the thick vegetation into a nearby adult silverback, just as he
stuffs a handful of neatly folded thistle leaves into his mouth.



The huge ape, unperturbed, pauses for a look down and then grabs another handful from his salad bowl environment. The irrepressible baby leaps to his feet, pounds his woolly chest in a quick staccato and then gallops off into the thick green jungle, chasing his mother.

Rwanda's famed mountain gorillas, trapped for ten years in a war zone, have managed to survive, taking a small step back from the brink of extinction.

Over the past decade, Rwanda's gorilla population has increased by a remarkable 10 percent despite a horrific human genocide, incursions into the park by armed rebels, human-spread disease, occasional poaching, government upheaval and constant pressure from land-starved peasants, who hoe their potatoes less than an hour's easy walk from the gorillas' sanctuary.

Today, 354 of the world's most endangered gorillas slip through the misty rainforest below Rwanda's towering Virunga volcanoes and, despite a recent spate of deaths, prospects for their survival are looking up as the war-torn region moves toward a fragile peace.

"Protecting them is still a big challenge. It's a delicate situation," said Anecto Kyitare, a Rwandan naturalist who monitors the apes several times a week for the Nairobi-based International Gorilla Conservation Program. "But after everything that's happened, the park and the gorillas are still here. I think the situation has improved a lot."

Altogether about 654 of the woolly black gorillas, first described by a German explorer a century ago and made famous by their murdered protector, American primatologist Dian Fossey, survive in two small areas of cool mountain forest in Uganda and on the Rwanda-Congo border. On a continent where great apes are disappearing with dismaying speed to hunting and habitat loss, they are the rarest cousins in the family.

In May, two female mountain gorillas were shot in Rwanda and one of their infants stolen in an apparent attempt to sell it. But problems with poaching, Fossey's biggest headache, have died down since the 1980s, thanks largely to improved education and patrolling of the forest's borders.

For the past decade, the biggest problem facing the gorillas has been their location in the middle of one of Africa's major war zones.

Fighting between Rwanda's ethnic Hutu-led government and Tutsi rebels began claiming gorillas in the early 1990s, and at least 18 died as Hutu militiamen, charged in the country's 1994 genocide, fled to the Congo and began staging attacks back across the border. That conflict, and the related war in Congo, drove many of the gorillas' human neighbors into the park to hide or look for food. Soon gorillas began dying of human measles and flu, and at least one silverback male was killed and eaten by hungry rebels.

As the war raged, gorilla tourism—which drew 7,000 visitors to Volcano National Park in 1989—collapsed, robbing Rwanda of cash needed to pay rangers and financial incentive to protect the great apes. Foreign visits to the gorillas dropped to zero in 1994, when genocide swept across the nation, claiming 750,000 lives, and the slowly recovering tourism industry plunged again in 1999, after eight gorilla tourists were murdered in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest by Rwandan Hutu rebels.

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
 

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