Stop the Carnage

A pistol-packing American scientist puts his life on the line to reduce “the most serious threat to African wildlife”—the illegal hunting of animals for food—and to STOP THE CARNAGE

Greer's efforts have led to the arrest of 20 poachers (rangers apprehend a suspect in Dzanga-Ndoki National Park). Still, hunters continue to slaughter western lowland gorillas in the Congo basin. (Martin Harvey)
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He continued to study the animals, driving an hour a day from the small city of Ruhengeri to the foot of the Virunga volcanoes, then hiking up to four hours into the forest where the gorillas lived. "I felt someone had to be with them every day to make sure they weren’t harmed," he says. His work was finally disrupted when the Interahamwe began executing foreigners. In January 1997, gunmen stormed into Ruhengeri and fatally shot three Spanish doctors and wounded an American aid worker. The next day, Greer left for Kigali, the capital, and he says he stayed "until the rebels were eventually flushed back into the Democratic Republic of the Congo."

Several months later, Karisoke temporarily suspended the monitoring of gorillas, and Greer moved again, to a swampy jungle straddling the Republic of the Congo-CAR border. There he studied western lowland gorillas at Mondika, a research station run by Diane Doran, a physical anthropologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Greer, who would later serve as Mondika’s director for two years until 2001, was intrigued by the differences between mountain gorillas and the western lowland species—the kind most commonly seen in zoos. Mountain gorillas forage in family groups along lush alpine slopes for wild celery, thistles, shoots and occasionally bark and insects. In contrast, lowland groups seek the leaves and sugary fruit of high jungle trees, shinnying up with astonishing agility to balance on boughs while they strip the branches. Also, Greer says, compared with mountain gorillas, the lowland animals "are much shyer, and are hard to find because they are hunted for food and travel much farther each day."

While visiting the Dzanga-Sangha reserve’s headquarters at Bayanga, Greer sometimes encountered Chloe Cipolletta, a vivacious young Italian wildlife biologist and gorilla researcher. The daughter of an Italian banker, Cipolletta, 34, could have lived in a luxurious Roman villa and been courted by sleek Armani-clad young men. Instead, she has made her home since 1998 in a thatched hut at her base camp in Bai Hokou. (A bai is a forest opening with a water source that attracts wildlife.) In July 2001, three years after Greer and Cipolletta met, they were married in a Pygmy wedding ceremony beneath the high trees at Bai Hokou. Following the custom of the diminutive forest people, the newlyweds exchanged sticks—the significance of the ritual was not explained to them—and then celebrated with the Pygmies, singing and dancing until noon the next day. "Pygmies are inexhaustible when it comes to partying," Greer says.

An hour after leaving Bayanga, we reach Bai Hokou, a huddle of thatched huts on a heavily forested hill and surrounded by a wire barrier hung with tin cans that frighten off forest elephants when they run into the fence. Cipolletta, standing at an outdoor table, is separating gorilla dung with twigs to determine what fruits the apes had been eating— information that becomes increasingly important as gorilla habitat disappears. She has counted more than 100 plants they use as food. When I ask her about Greer, she says, "He’s my Tarzan. He likes to climb trees and is the first to try anything."

"Does that mean you’re his Jane?"

"No," she says, laughing. "I’m his Cheetah."

Based at the camp with Cipolletta are several Pygmy animal trackers and three research assistants, including two 26- year-old Americans, Jessica Zerr and Sarah Pacyna. Zerr, a Californian, found the work hard at first and has had four bouts with malaria. But she never despaired, she says: "To be with the gorillas was my life’s dream."

The next morning, Greer and I leave with Ngbanda, a Pygmy, to find a gorilla group that he and Cipolletta have "habituated," or spent so much time observing that the animals have become accustomed to human beings. As a barefooted Ngbanda leads us along a path carved by the feet of generations of forest elephants, the rain-speckled jungle presses in from all sides, exuding a dizzying odor of dank earth and foliage. We push past tree branches blocking our way, shuffle through streams and duck away from djele— vines studded with thorns that festoon the tracks. Tiny, stingless sweat bees swarm us, buzzing around our ears and mouths and dive bombing our eyeballs.

Suddenly, Ngbanda halts. "Elephant," Greer murmurs. In the shadowy foliage I spy a trunk and tusks. Compared with plains elephants, forest elephants tend to live in smaller herds, thanks partly to their dense, tangled territory, and they also are smaller in size. Still, at some eight feet high and three and a half tons for a mature bull, forest elephants are formidable. "Run like hell if he charges, because they hate humans, with good reason," Greer whispers. Thankfully, the elephant ignores us.

Two hours later, as we push through a bamboo thicket where the air is so humid it seems to sweat, Ngbanda halts us. "Ebobo," he mouths. Gorillas. Greer and I see nothing, but he trusts the Pygmy trackers. "They seem to have X-ray vision," he says. "They see and hear things in the jungle that we can’t."


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