Other Environmental Themes

Gorillas in the Midst

“Their long black hair rounds off the edges of angular jaws, bony brows, and sharp crests,” write Bill Weber and Amy Vedder, describing the magisterial bearing of mountain gorillas in their book In the Kingdom of Gorillas. “Then there are the eyes, the deep brown reflecting pools in which we sometimes see ourselves. Finally there is the dignity with which they carry themselves, and which gives them a certain aura....”

For the past 30 years, the husband and wife research team from the Wildlife Conservation Society has been studying the gorillas in the mountains of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Congo, and doing their best to save these “overwhelmingly social beings” that they consider “close kin.” About 400 gorillas, little more than half of the world’s population, currently inhabit the Virunga Mountains, a narrow strand of highland forest and volcanoes (some rising more than 14,000 feet), lying within national parks straddling the borders of the three countries. The rest, another 350 or so gorillas, live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

When Weber and Vedder first arrived in Rwanda in 1978, a census suggested that only about 260 gorillas were left in the Virungas, representing a decline of more than 40% from the 1960 estimates made by the naturalist George Schaller. The couple realized that if something dramatic were not done, the animals might soon disappear altogether. They not only started the Mountain Gorilla Project, which has since become the International Gorilla Conservation Program, but also started an ecotourism program in Rwanda that has fared extremely well. Before the program began, Rwanda’s Volcano National Park only took in $5,000 a year. It now generates $25,000 per day in park entry fees alone, not counting additional revenues from hotels, meals, and other commerce. As a result of this effort, Rwanda now has a significant financial stake in protecting the mountain gorillas, protection that continued during the genocide and civil war of the 1990s in which hundreds of thousands (perhaps a million) people died.

Because of that sustained commitment and international cooperation the mountain gorilla population has rebounded, constituting one of the rare success stories in conservation today. While the tri-national boundary of the Virungas can complicate matters, it also offers some advantages. The hope is that when conditions are bad in one country, as they currently are in the civil war-torn Congo, the gorillas will be able to move away from trouble. The worry, of course, is if the entire region were to become engulfed in war, leaving neither gorillas nor people anywhere to go.

Regardless of the region’s political stability (or lack thereof), vigilance will always be required if mountain gorillas, a small population living in an “island” habitat, are to survive. “Yes, they are on the brink of extinction,” Weber admits, “and they always will be.”