Endangered Mountain Gorillas in Tanzania and Rwanda

Tourists may offer the best (and probably the last) hope of saving this endangered species.

| May/June 1984

More than 120,000 people are living off a two-kilometer strip of land bordering Rwanda's Virunga Volcanoes National Park, the home of the endangered mountain gorillas (Gorilla gorilla beringei). In fact, almost every available spot of earth in this tiny, central African country has been divided into small plots of corn, peas, pineapples, bananas, and sorghum. Such plantings are staggered up to the very tops of the steep mountain slopes, and the intense cultivation makes one wonder where this nation, the most densely populated on the African continent, will ever find room to put the doubled population it expects within the next two decades!

An Ecological Lesson

Only a few years ago, 22,000 acres—or nearly half—of the thickly forested Volcanoes National Park, the first such reserve ever established in Africa, were given over to the cultivation of pyrethrum. (This white daisy-like chrysanthemum is the source of a natural insecticide and provides Rwanda with one of its few cash crops.) Shortly thereafter, residents found that, as a result of the destruction of so much of the precipitation producing rain forests, the surface streams in the area had dried up. For the first time, then, the local population began to become aware of the value of leaving this beautiful montane rain-forest ecosystem undisturbed.

Even so, the pressures being exerted upon the remaining park area are immense. The wooden stakes marking its boundaries are often surreptitiously moved back by local residents hoping to gain even a few more feet of farmland or a tree or two to cut for scarce cooking fuel. In spite of this, the money necessary to install more permanent cement boundary markers has been slow to materialize.

Poachers, too, are always a menace to the park's wildlife, which—in addition to its famous gorillas—includes nearly 100 forest elephants (rare, smaller relatives of the savanna pachyderm), buffalo, black-fronted and yellow-backed duikers, bushbuck (notable for their dog-like bark), tree hyraxes, giant forest hogs, giant rats, and approximately 100 species of birds. Three other species of primates occupy the park—the blue monkey, the golden monkey, and Bosman's potto.

Gorilla poachers are often hired by unscrupulous zoos (both public and private) wanting a gorilla baby, and usually a whole family group is killed, as the adults will fight to the death to protect their young. The fact that gorillas give birth on average only every four to five years means that even limited poaching can have a disastrous effect on populations. While poaching for the gorillas themselves is still a problem in Rwanda, an even greater concern arises when local people, wishing to supplement their protein-poor diet, attempt to snare some of the park's antelope. Unfortunately, curious gorillas frequently lose a hand or foot in the traps and often end up dying of gangrene as a result. (One of the participants in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS tour to the gorilla's homeland accidentally tripped just such a snare.)

An internationally sponsored project now pays for guards to patrol the 30,000-acre refuge, and the officials do bring in a number of poachers each week, dealing with them fairly harshly. But there simply aren't enough guards, and there's very little money to provide those already on duty with such basic necessities as guns, ammunition, and uniforms. In addition, the park shares its borders with Uganda and Zaire, which have even poorer wildlife protection records than Rwanda does. (Zaire is now laying the groundwork for its own gorilla program, but it will need several years, additional outside staff, and much money if the program is to become effective.)

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