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Gorillas Make Home in "Impenetrable" Forest

Scientists hope the recent change in government in the Democratic Republic of Congo will help clear paths for peace in the forests of central Africa.

"There are early indications that Joseph Kabila's leadership over the Democratic Republic of Congo could mean greater stability for central Africa," says Stephen Morrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Female Bwindi mountain gorilla
Photograph by Aliette Frank/NGS

Stability would be a positive turn for the scientists who recently navigated through the region's biological, political, and socio-economic tangle in the region.

"The forest is riven by disputes and crosshatched by historical, political, and biological borders," says researcher Craig Stanford, describing one central African forest named "The Impenetrable."

The Bwindi-Impenetrable Forest, also known as "Place of Darkness," was established as a national park along the volatile Uganda-Rwanda-Democratic Republic of Congo border in 1991. The forest was subsequently recognized as a United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site for its biological significance.

Bwindi's tropical moist forest is among the most biologically complex, richest, and least understood biomes on Earth and harbors half of the world's remaining mountain gorillas. Bwindi is also the only place in the world where endangered chimpanzees and mountain gorillas coexist.

These two elusive primates captivated Stanford, a park researcher and co-director of the Jane Goodall Research Center. Stanford first came to Bwindi three years ago on a project supported by the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration.

Studying how the gorillas and chimpanzees coexist, Stanford found not two, but three, primates struggling together to survive.

A Dark Past

Ntako parish children 
Ntako parish children and banana leaf hut on the Bwindi park border.
Photograph by Aliette Frank/NGS
Bwindi is home to a people whose livelihood depends on gorilla tourism and park revenue. "The full spectrum of benefits and values of the forest to current and future generations is incalculable," says Annette Lanjouw, director of the Africa-based International Gorilla Conservation Program.

The people are stricken with some of the world's most severe poverty and disease, and are ravaged by a continuing genocide, which has taken more than a million lives.

In March 1999, a band of Hutu rebels descended on Buhoma, a tourist village at the northwest edge of Bwindi. They opened fire with automatic rifles and grenades, setting buildings and vehicles on fire, and taking 31 foreign tourists hostage.

The rebels singled out the English-speakers, reportedly blaming them for not backing the Hutus. In addition to killing the game warden and three park rangers, the rebels bludgeoned and macheted eight of the tourists to death.

"My assistant was kidnapped by the Interahamwe, but fortunately survived the ordeal," says Stanford.

The rebels, who call themselves the Interahamwe ("those who kill together") are remnants of the army that murdered more than half a million Rwandans in 1994. The Interahamwe support forces of the recently murdered Congolese president, Laurent Kabila, against rebel groups backed by Uganda and Rwanda.

Light in Place of Darkness

Although the path toward peace is not well-marked through the forests of central Africa, "The removal of Laurent Kabila is the removal of a major obstacle," says Morrison. "Now there's an opportunity for an open dialogue. It's a step in the right direction."

There are other signs of headway. "Bwindi has been peaceful since the '99 attack," says Stanford. "I am hopeful there will be more peace in the future."

To date, no gorillas have reportedly been victims of the recent conflicts developing in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. In fact, instability may have been a positive force behind gorilla survival.

"There are aspects of the war which have had benefits for conservation. For one, there has not been as much poaching going on," says Lanjouw.

The latest monitoring data from the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP)—an initiative supported by the African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna and Flora International, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund—offers some more good news for the great apes. The IGCP reports that the number of gorillas in the nearby Virunga chain of volcanoes has risen over the past 11 years, from 320 to nearly 355 individuals.

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Gorillas at a Glance

Gorillas are found in east-central Africa and equatorial west Africa. Based on differences in size, physical features, and location gorillas are classified into three subspecies. About 40,000 western lowland gorillas live on Africa's Atlantic coast. Between 2,500 and 4,500 eastern lowland gorillas live in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Mountain gorillas, that number only about 600, live on the border of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The gorilla—and other "great apes," orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos—are endangered, may become extinct in as few as 20 years.

Most of what is known about gorillas comes from the famous studies of primatologist Dian Fossey, who is featured in the movie Gorillas in the Mist. She researched the mountain gorillas of the Virunga volcanoes for nearly 13 years and kept a heroic vigil that helped the apes endure. Fossey was reportedly killed in 1985 by poachers.