Saving the world’s few mountain gorillas takes science, politics, compassion… and guns
From base camp, we hiked past the farms cultivating delicate white pyrethrum flowers for the insecticide market, through the orderly copses of fast-growing eucalyptus trees brought here from Australia and over the waist-high, mossy stone wall into Africa’s oldest nature reserve, the 50-square mile Volcanoes National Park in northern Rwanda, part of a mountain range that is the last refuge of the mountain gorillas.
Edward—our English-speaking guide from the Rwandan wildlife agency—halted us. “Ladies and gentlemen, good news for you,” said Edward, a tall, smiling man with a smooth, bald scalp. “The trackers are already with the gorillas, which are not far from here.”
Our group of six American tourists audibly hummed with excitement. On that misty day in mid-May, we were about to visit 16 of the last 880 mountain gorillas left in the whole world.
But not without a lot of help.
The trackers Edward referred to are, in essence, scouts. They spend days at a time carefully following gorilla families, logging their movements on handheld GPS receivers, reporting in to the guides every morning before the tourists arrive. Our trek included three of the patient scouts.
The trackers carry AK-47s. And in that regard, they aren’t alone. The Rwandan government also assigns a couple of armed wildlife agency guards to each of the thousands of expeditions that visit the mountain gorillas every year.
And as a tour group hikes up the park’s dormant volcanoes toward its designated gorilla family, a squad of Rwandan army soldiers also follows at a short distance, quiet and unseen.
There is danger in these hills for man and his close kin the gorilla. Aggressive buffaloes and spooked forest elephants can attack suddenly. Poachers, smugglers and rebels are even deadlier. But today neither the buffaloes nor the bandits are a match for the gorillas’ protectors.
After decades during which the mountain gorillas’ very existence as a species was threatened by unchecked hunting, rapid deforestation, war and human genocide, today the gentle giants are increasing in number by more than a dozen per year.
Protecting them, and the hundreds of millions of dollars in wildlife tourism they bring to Rwanda and neighboring countries every year, is deadly serious and dangerous business.
No one knows how many mountain gorillas there were in the recent past—to say nothing of ancient times. The land that is now Rwanda long has been home to one of the densest human populations on the planet. The gorillas probably have always been under great pressure. And until just a few decades ago, people didn’t bother counting the burly but gentle apes.
But this much we know for sure. In the late 1980s, biologists counted just over 600 mountain gorillas—and worried that the species could go extinct by century’s end owing to poaching, illegal capture for the pet trade and relentless competition for habitat.
And that was before the 1994 genocide that killed an estimated 10 percent of Rwanda’s roughly 10 million people—and also threatened the fragile gorilla population. After many years of political and economic strife, Rwandans from the Hutu class attacked the smaller Tutsi class and their moderate Hutu protectors.
The killings displaced millions of Rwandans before a militia under former refugee Paul Kagame marched across Rwanda, scattering the killers and restoring stability. Today Kagame is Rwanda’s controversial president.
Many people had fled into the forests. The flood of desperate humanity easily could have drowned the last few hundred mountain gorillas. Starving people placed snares in the forest to catch antelopes. The snares also entangled and mortally wounded apes.
Despite having lost his parents and three of his brothers to the genocidaires, Rwandan biologist Eugene Rutagarama immediately focused his energies on saving the gorillas. “I put in my focus and my full soul,” Rutagarama told The Ecologist. “There was no more space for anything else.”
He rallied the surviving wildlife guards and brought former guards out of retirement, steadfastly ignoring the old class divisions. The park staff restored security to the gorillas’ habitat, removed snares and protected the tourists who slowly returned as Rwanda calmed.
In saving the gorillas, the Rwandans also saved themselves. “After a humanitarian disaster as horrific as the genocide, the common struggle to preserve something of shared value allowed people to transcend the conflict and create links,” Rutagarama said.
The decade-plus following the genocide was a dangerous time for local people, gorillas and tourists. In 1999, Hutu rebels who had escaped Kagame’s army by fleeing to the Democratic Republic of Congo sneaked into Uganda and attacked a tour group visiting gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest near Volcanoes National Park.
The rebels killed four Britons, two Americans and two New Zealanders in addition to the tourists’ Ugandan guide. Over the years, there were other horrific setbacks. Renewed violence in Rwanda claimed the lives of more than 100 park rangers. More than a hundred Congolese park rangers also died in fighting in their country.
In January 2007, rebels on the Congo side of the volcanoes killed and ate two gorillas. In July 2007 another five gorillas were killed in Congo. It took investigators a year to untangle the latter murders.
Honoré Mashagiru, chief warden of Virunga National Park on the Congo side of the gorillas’ mountain home, had ordered his men to kill the apes in order to frame Paulin Ngobobo, a fearless park ranger who had fought hard to end illegal charcoal production, an ecologically-devastating and lucrative practice in which Mashagiru had a huge personal financial stake.
Congolese authorities arrested Mashagiru, but he spent only two days in prison. “In Congo, the laws are not very strong,” explains Jean Felix Kinani, a veterinarian with Gorilla Doctors, a Uganda-based NGO that looks after the gorillas’ health.
In Rwanda and Uganda however, governance quickly improved—and so did conservation efforts. Tourism rebounded. Fewer than 1,000 tourists visited Volcanoes in 2009. By 2012 the number had swelled to 6,000. Today around 10,000 people annually come to the park to see gorillas, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars every year into the local economy.
Guerrillas & gorillas
The gorilla wars are not over. Grave threats persist. The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a Hutu rebel group known by its French acronym FDLR, has moved closer to Rwanda from its current base inside Congo—and its fighters sometimes show up inside Volcanoes National Park.
Rutagarama said even the guerrillas have come to think differently about the gorillas. Whereas in the past, fighters might kill gorillas for food or to sell their hands and skulls to collectors, today the rebels generally leave the gentle creatures alone. “It is significant to notice that recent rebels in the Virunga area have refrained from hurting gorillas,” the conservationist said.
But FDLR fighters don’t necessarily feel the same compulsion toward the apes’ human allies. In December 2012, rebels attacked a camp belonging to some of Volcanoes’ gorilla trackers. The FDLR fighters may have believed they were attacking a Rwandan army encampment, Kinani explains.
The guerrillas shot and killed a tracker named Esdrass. Rwandan troops pursued the killers into the forest, but they succeeded in escaping into Congo.
More recently, British oil company Soco International and the Congolese government announced plans to drill for oil inside Virunga. Head warden Emmanuel De Merode, who had replaced the criminal Mashagiru, opposed the move. In April, someone ambushed De Merode, shooting and gravely wounding him.
Human Rights Watch found evidence linking the assassination attempt to De Merode’s opposition to oil exploration. The warden recovered and bravely returned to his job. Soco bowed to international pressure and retracted its drilling plan.
Gorillas now represent one of Rwanda’s biggest industries. Many Congolese hope the creatures will similarly benefit them, although the government in Kinshasa has been slow to afford the gorillas adequate protection.
Kigali, at least, is serious about protecting the apes … and the revenue they generate. Armed trackers precede each group. Armed guards accompany them. Army soldiers stand watch nearby.
Cooperation is close between wildlife authorities in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo as well as with the army, the U.N. and the many NGOs that help study, protect and provide veterinary care to the gorillas.
In May, Gorilla Doctors, the U.N. and wildlife authorities in Rwanda and Congo worked together to transfer Ihirwe, a very rare Grauer’s gorilla who had been rescued from poachers, from Rwanda to a rehabilitation center in Congo.
“Protected areas are better managed and resourced than they have ever been,” said Drew McVey, species program manager at the U.K. branch of the World Wildlife Fund, said of Volcanoes and adjacent parks.
As a result, mountain gorillas are now growing in number. From a recent low of 600, the apes in Virunga, Volcanoes and Bwindi have increased to 880. Every summer, the Rwandan government throws a big party—the Kwita Izina—in Musanze, just outside Volcanoes National Park, where wildlife supporters get to name all the baby gorillas born in the previous year.
In 2013, they named 12 babies.
Pushing into a mountainside clearing on that day in mid-May, my group of American tourists came face to face with a family of 16 gorillas lounging after their morning meal. The three silverbacks and dozen or so adult females tried their best to ignore us.
But a one-year-old boy—probably one of those who got his name in last year’s Kwita Izina—climbed onto a bush and beat his tiny chest with his tiny fists.
He’s the future of his species. And a sign that people who love gorillas are winning the gorilla wars—slowly and at great cost.