The path to the mountain gorillas is not for the fainthearted. For nearly two hours here in Congo, I have climbed almost vertically up a rocky trail through dense jungle, ever wary of running into the anti-government rebel militias that swarm through these mountains. Leading the way are two trackers and three armed rangers who, charged with ensuring the safety of the four gorilla families that live on these slopes, make this journey routinely.
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At some 10,000 feet above sea level, on the slopes of Mount Mikeno, a dormant volcano in the Virunga Mountains, the trackers pick up signs of a gorilla clan led by a silverback—so-called for the distinctive silver saddle that appears on a mature male's back—named Humba. The men hack a path through walls of creepers, bamboo and prickly vines, following a trail left by the gorillas. Suddenly, the lead tracker holds up a hand to halt us. He utters a few hoarse coughs—gorilla-speak to tell the great apes we come in peace.
Moments later, about ten yards ahead, Humba yanks aside the creepers to stare at us with imperious grace. His muscled body ripples with power, and his massive head has the gravitas of a Mount Rushmore president. He bares his fearsome canine teeth. "Don't be afraid," a ranger whispers, "he's used to people."
It's the gorillas that have reason to fear. Only about 750 mountain gorillas are left in the world: 350 in Uganda, 270 in Rwanda and a mere 150 here in Congo (formerly Zaire). They have been ravaged by poaching, habitat loss, disease and the violence of war. Many live in lawless regions, sharing territory with armed rebels from Uganda or the remnants of Hutu militias responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide of ethnic Tutsis. Today the biggest threat comes from the Congolese area of their range. Rebel groups opposed to Congo president Joseph Kabila control territory in the turbulent east. The most powerful group is led by an ethnic Tutsi named Laurent Nkunda, who commands thousands of well-armed rebels in the Virungas. Not far from here in January, troops from Nkunda's group killed and presumably ate two silverbacks. A female was shot in May, another male and four females were slain in July; their killers had not been identified as we went to press.
It is the desperate plight of mountain gorillas that has brought me halfway across the world to see what is being done to protect them. For one hour (strictly enforced to minimize the animals' exposure to human disease), we watch the silverback and three adult females and five youngsters as they eat, play and doze in their perilous paradise. Every 10 or 15 minutes, Humba knuckle-walks farther up the slope in search of food, followed by his family. I stumble after them.
When our hour is up and we have begun winding our way back down the mountain, I hear voices and glimpse camouflage uniforms though gaps in the thick foliage. At one point, we come face to face with about 40 soldiers brandishing assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Bandoleers of bullets are strung across their chests. "They're Rwandan Army troops," says Emmanuel de Merode, executive director of WildlifeDirect, a Nairobi-based nonprofit organization that helps fund the rangers and trackers. "They've illegally crossed into the Congo, so don't take any pictures, or they'll probably shoot you."
My journey to the isolated mountain gorillas of eastern Congo began in Nairobi, Kenya, where I met Richard Leakey, 62, chairman of WildlifeDirect. In the 1950s and 1960s, Leakey's paleoanthropologist father, Louis, best known for his research on human origins in Africa, famously chose Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall and Biruté Galdikas to study our closest animal relatives: mountain gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans, respectively. Richard's wife Meave and daughter Louise recently helped discover (with Fred Spoor, see "Interview") two fossils that change our understanding of the hominid family tree.
Richard Leakey is credited with saving Kenya's elephants. In 1989, as head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, he gained world attention when he set fire to 2,000 poached elephant tusks and ordered his rangers to shoot poachers on sight. Today Kenya has about 25,000 elephants, up from 16,000 in 1989. Leakey lost both legs in a light-plane crash and has received two kidney transplants. Undaunted, he has channeled his energy into building WildlifeDirect, which he created last September. The organization pays for park rangers' salaries and supplies. Until recently, the rangers went unpaid for years at a time. "Since the beginning of armed conflict in eastern Congo [a civil war started in 1994], over 150 rangers have been killed on active service," Leakey says. "Despite the minimal support, Congo's rangers risk their lives on a daily basis."
Since getting to the Congolese mountain gorillas is difficult and dangerous, Leakey assigned de Merode and Samantha Newport, another staff member, to meet me in Congo and help me reach the gorillas there.
My first stop is a short flight away, to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, where I stay overnight at the Hotel des Mille Collines, also known as the Hotel Rwanda. (The tall, modern building looks nothing like the two-story safari hotel in the movie of the same name, most of which was filmed in South Africa.) I sleep uneasily, thinking of the Tutsi families who may have occupied the room while the Hutu militia rampaged outside more than a decade ago. I decide not to take a dip in the swimming pool, which for a time was the Tutsi refugees' only source of drinking water.