Guerrillas in Their Midst

Face to face with Congo’s imperiled mountain gorillas

(Cheryl Carlin)
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The next day, en route to joining some tourists to visit Rwanda's mountain gorillas, I pass Kigali's prison, where an armed guard watches over about 30 men clad in prison-issue pajamas. "They're most likely Interahamwe [Those Who Act Together]," my driver says, referring to the Hutu militia who murdered most of the 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus—men, women and children—during three months in 1994, most of them by machete.

After a two-hour drive, we reach the town of Ruhengeri in the shadow of the Virunga Mountains, a chain of eight volcanoes that thrust up to 14,000 feet above sea level in a 50-mile arc. In 1861, British explorer John Speke was warned that the Virungas' slopes were inhabited by man-like monsters. But only in 1902 did a German officer, Capt. Oscar von Beringe, become the first European to report seeing mountain gorillas, on Mount Sabyinyo's slopes above Ruhengeri. He shot two of them, and the subspecies was named Gorilla beringei beringei. Over the next two decades, Western expeditions killed or captured 43 more. Five shot by American naturalist Carl Akeley in 1921 can be seen in a diorama at New York's American Museum of Natural History.

"As he lay at the base of the tree," Akeley wrote of one of his trophies, "it took all one's scientific ardor to keep from feeling like a murderer. He was a magnificent creature with the face of an amiable giant who would do no harm except perhaps in self-defense or in defense of his friends." To protect the animals, Akeley persuaded Belgium, the colonial power in what was then called Ruanda-Urundi, to create Albert National Park in 1925, Africa's first. It was renamed Virunga National Park in 1969.

Forty years ago, Dian Fossey fled a bloody civil war on the Congo side of the Virungas, where she had been studying mountain gorillas, to pitch a tent on the Rwandan side. She spent much of the next 18 years there with her beloved gorillas, until in 1985 she was murdered by an assailant, still unknown. Fossey's best-selling memoir, Gorillas in the Mist, and the movie based on it, demolished the belief that gorillas were man-killing beasts. It also sparked a multi-million-dollar boom in mountain gorilla tourism. Today visitors are largely confined to the Rwandan and Ugandan preserves because of danger from Congolese militias.

Shortly after dawn, at the headquarters of Volcanoes National Park on the outskirts of Ruhengeri, about 40 tourists, most of them American, gather for a trek to the seven mountain gorilla families on the Rwandan side. Each visitor pays $500 for a one-hour visit. Despite the cost, the park's chief warden, Justin Nyampeta Rurangirwa, tells me that there is a yearlong waiting list. The revenue is vital to Rwanda's feeble economy. "We earn about $8 million yearly from the entrance fees, and more millions from our visitors' hotel, travel and food costs," he says.

When I was last in Ruhengeri, a decade ago, reporting on the fate of mountain gorillas after the Rwandan genocide, the Interahamwe was using the gorilla habitat to move between Rwanda and what was then still called Zaire on raids. The Hutu militia also seeded the mountain passes with land mines to prevent pursuit by their enemies. Nyampeta Rurangirwa sighs at the memory. "Despite the fighting," he says, "only one mountain gorilla was killed on our side of the border. A silverback named Mrithi was shot dead because a soldier stumbled into him during a night patrol and thought he was a rebel."

Ten years ago, the militia were still terrorizing Ruhengeri and villages around it. A few months after I left, they murdered three Spanish aid workers and badly injured an American. Weeks later, they killed a Canadian priest. But Nyampeta Rurangirwa says that these days the town, and the gorillas on the Rwandan side of the border, are safe. Even poaching—a serious problem a decade ago—has been cut to a negligible level, at least in the national park. Rope and wire snares, used to capture small antelope but very dangerous to gorillas as well, are also less of a problem. "Our rangers patrol vigorously in the park, and that's a major reason they rarely come across snares nowadays," Nyampeta Rurangirwa tells me.

Mountain gorillas also benefit from the oversight of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP), a conservation program proposed by Fossey shortly before her death and now affiliated with the Maryland Zoo. When I came here the first time, the project employed just two veterinarians working out of a bungalow. Now it has a modern base equipped with a laboratory and more than 20 staff members across three countries, including six veterinarians.

The head vet is Lucy Spelman, the former director of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. She climbs the slopes every couple of days to check on gorillas, looking for symptoms such as limping, coughing, hair loss and diarrhea. Because mountain gorillas are so closely related to humans, she tells me, they can catch such diseases as polio, measles, strep throat, tuberculosis and herpes from us, as well as salmonella and rabies from animals. If necessary, MGVP workers anesthetize gorillas with darts and then inject them with antibiotics to treat infections.

Spelman says that mountain gorillas in the Virunga region have increased by 17 percent since 1989, thanks in part to ranger patrols and the MGVP. "Ours is the first veterinary service to look after an endangered species in its natural environment," she says. She is raising a 4-year-old orphan, Maisha, who was seized from poachers. Only a few other mountain gorillas are in captivity (most gorillas in zoos are western lowland gorillas). Spelman hopes to return Maisha to the wild—a world first if she succeeds.


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