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.

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