Mountain Gorilla : Article by Adrian Warren ....Page 6 of 6
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by Adrian Warren
Anti-poaching patrols remain in the Park day and night to protect all wildlife, and prove their effectiveness by destroying hundreds of snares every year. These snares are set mainly for bushbuck and duiker but prove just as lethal for the gorillas. Park guards also make daily patrols to check on the welfare of all monitored groups of gorillas. The guards know the groups well and can name the gorillas individually: Dian Fossey gave English names to her research animals but, since her death, it has been traditional for the guards, who are normally the first to discover newborn gorilla babies, to give them names in their own Kinyarwandan language. As well as checking for new babies, the guards make sure that all individuals are accounted for and note any abnormal behaviour that might result from sickness or injury.
All the Park staff help in a periodic census which is extremely hard work since a great deal of territory must be covered in as short a time as possible if a reasonably accurate figure of the mountain gorilla population is to be achieved. The result of the November 1989 census was 309 gorillas for the Virungas (a slight increase on the 1986 figure of 295 gorillas). The census is conducted either by counting the animals themselves or by analysing the night nests carefully. There are thirty two groups altogether, the largest group numbering 32 gorillas and the smallest two (males); there are six lone silverbacks. Four habituated groups have been used for tourist visits lasting one hour on a daily basis; a well controlled programme allowing visitors in groups of six or eight persons to observe the gorillas at distances as little as five metres, in the company of park guards. The distance is kept at a minimum of five metres to reduce any risk of disease transmission; the gorillas are susceptible to infections that visitors may unwittingly carry into the forest, but without the advantage of any natural resistance that we might have. A common cold infection could therefore sweep through and devastate an entire group. The guards are very sensitive and conscientious with regard to refusing entry to the forest for any tourists whom they believe are carrying this kind of risk. If the money gained through tourism is essential to secure the conservation of the gorillas, it would be a tragic irony if a disease transmitted during a tourist visit resulted in one or more gorilla deaths.
When the tourism programme is working to capacity, it is financially lucrative for the Park. During 1989, the number of visitors was at saturation point, partly as a result of various films featuring the mountain gorillas and the accompanying publicity. But during 1990, a new and unexpected conflict arose that was to threaten the gorillas' future.
Rebels crossed the border from Uganda into Rwanda on 1st. 4October 1990. Most of them belonged to the Tutsi tribe that used to rule Rwanda, although the rebels claimed that theirs was not a tribal struggle. The government of Rwanda, which the rebels had hoped to overthrow, is dominated by the majority Hutu tribe who claimed that the Tutsis wanted a return to the times prior to 1959 when Tutsi herdsmen owned Hutus as slaves. Civil rebellions between the two tribes in 1959, 1963 and 1973 resulted in bloody slaughter and many thousands of Tutsis fled across the border into Uganda to save their lives. About two million Rwandans live outside their country in neighbouring Uganda, Zaire and Tanzania and the thousands of refugees who found temporary solace in Uganda repeatedly had their requests for a return to Rwandan citizenship turned down. The desire to go home to their own country resulted in the invasion comprising 3,200 Ugandan army deserters who were Rwandan and mostly Tutsi, led by one of Uganda's top army officers, Major General Fred Rwigema, himself a Tutsi.
The rebels' initial thrust into Rwanda was through Akagera National Park in the north-eastern corner of the country, and it was not until much later, in January 1991, that any forays were made in the vicinity of the "Parc des Volcans" - the Virunga volcanoes. At that time rebel forces crossed the border into Rwanda by way of the Park, attacking the local centre at Ruhengeri and the Park Headquarters at Kinigi. Sporadic attacks continued over the ensuing months, convincing Rwandan authorities that the rebels aims were to disrupt rather than invade. In that they were successful: apart from attacks on local people, the gorillas were at risk, although rebel authorities claimed that they had no intention of harming either the gorillas or the environment. Certainly gorilla visits by tourists ground to a halt, damaging not only the country's economy but also its ability to adequately support and maintain its conservation effort, largely funded by tourist income. On 21st. May 1991 came the news that everyone feared: "Mrithi", the silverback leader of group 13, a favourite among tourist visitors and star of many films on mountain gorillas including "Gorillas in the Mist" (Warner Brothers) and "Mountain Gorilla" (Imax Corporation) was shot and killed by military gunfire. It seems that a group of soldiers, whether they were rebels or Rwandese military is unimportant, was wandering through the forest during the early hours of the morning when they stumbled upon group 13. The gorillas were peacefully unaware of what was about to happen, snugly asleep in their night nests. The sudden arrival of soldiers, already nervous with guns loaded, prompted "Mrithi" to bark in alarm; the ensuing burst of gunfire resulting in the death of "Mrithi" from multiple wounds to the chest. Miraculously, the remainder of the group managed to escape unhurt but without a leader their future social structure was questionable.
The event underlined the fragility of the few hundred remaining mountain gorillas in the Parc des Volcans. Rare, surrounded on all sides by people greedy for land, at risk from snares set by poachers, endangered by military groups, and by diseases carried by humans to which they have little or no resistance. No mountain gorillas exist in captivity any more, therefore there are no captive breeding programmes - and even if there were, it would be questionable whether reintroduction to the wild could be a viable proposition for an animal with such a complex, sophisticated social structure. Until the recent political instabilities occured, the conservation efforts in the Virungas had been a model for others to follow, but no amount of hard work or care can divert the increasing pressure for land as the growing human tide continues to greedily consume our planet. Whether or not mountain gorillas have a future is an open question: it is not only for moral responsibility that we should care for our diminishing natural landscapes and wildlife but it is in the interests of the very survival of us all. The mountain gorillas are, like many thousands of other species of the world, on the brink of extinction, and if we ever turn our backs, they will be gone.
Adrian Warren, 1992
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