Gentle Gorillas, Turbulent Times

Conservationists fear that Rwanda’s instability could endanger the gorillas’ survival. Others ask: How should the plight of the world’s rarest ape be weighed against more than 500,000 human dead?

This story appears in the October 1995 issue of National Geographic magazine.

On January 22, 1991, my wife, Kay, and I sat on the summit of Mount Visoke, one of the eight Virunga volcanoes that straddle the borders of Rwanda, Zaire, and Uganda. We had come to help with a mountain gorilla film. That morning we had left the Karisoke Research Center, the base of Dian Fossey's gorilla work from 1967 until she was killed by unknown assailants in 1985. Her hut of green corrugated metal remained, littered with remnants of her past. Still on the wall was a plastic Santa Claus, a poignant reminder that she died at Christmastime. Beside her cabin, shaded by moss-laden boughs of hagenia trees, was her grave, along with those of 17 gorillas, one dog, and one monkey.

But it was not a day for us to dwell on tragedy. Instead of the swirling gray fog and rain-drenched slopes that are so common here, the volcanoes rose stark and clear above a shimmering forest. To the west, in the saddle between Mikeno and Karisimbi, the two highest volcanoes, was a place called Kabara. Kay and I had lived there in 1959 and 1960 while conducting the first intensive gorilla study. Now, after three decades, we had returned to an idyll of our past.

The gorillas on the slopes of the Virunga volcanoes—some 300 animals—inhabit a small forested island surrounded by a sea of people. Twenty miles to the north is Uganda's Impenetrable Forest, now protected as Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, another island with perhaps 300 gorillas. These 285 square miles represent the entire world of the remaining mountain gorillas. Years ago, when I watched the gorillas' leisurely life, the animals eating and sleeping and tumbling in play, I was glad that they could not fathom their rarity and my concerns. We have a common past, but only humans have been given the mental power to worry about their fate.

Now the radiance of those months returned as intense memories. Once again Kay and I followed a swath of head-high vegetation until soft grumbles signaled contented gorillas ahead. We recalled old gorilla acquaintances: Big Daddy, the silverback leader of a large group, his power majestic even in repose, and Junior, a reckless young male that liked to linger near us. Once a female with an infant on her back had climbed with startling innocence upon a low branch to sit with me, probably the first time that a wild gorilla and a human were amicably side-by-side.

However, to me that gorilla study had meaning beyond the gathering of new facts. Gorillas had long been viewed as symbols of savagery, "exceedingly ferocious" in temper, as a 19th-century missionary phrased it. My task was not to capture or master them but solely to interpret their life. So I approached them with empathy and respect, wanting nothing from them but peace and proximity. And they accepted my presence with an astounding generosity of spirit. The recent decades have been a turning point, indeed a revolution, in our relationship with animals. Humans have begun to overcome cross-species barriers, achieving intimacy with humpback whales, chimpanzees, lions, mountain sheep, wolves. The gorillas of popular image were a fantasy. It pleases me that I helped change perceptions.

The gorilla, of course, is more than an animal. These apes are a primal part of human heritage. Our kin. We traveled down different evolutionary paths, the gorillas creating their own world, complete and coherent, and humans shaping theirs. No one who looks into a gorilla's eyes—intelligent, gentle, vulnerable—can remain unchanged, for the gap between ape and human vanishes; we know that the gorilla still lives within us. Do gorillas also recognize this ancient connection?

Our reveries that day on Mount Visoke were shattered by a walkie-talkie message from the lowlands: The Rwandan Patriotic Front—led by ethnic Tutsi—had invaded from Uganda. We were ordered to leave the mountains immediately. Led by primatologist Diane Doran, the director of Karisoke at the time, we descended to the town of Ruhengeri. Caught in the middle of a battle between rebels and the Rwandan Army the following day, we were evacuated by French paratroopers.

Ironically, Kay and I also had to terminate our project in 1960 because of war. The Belgian Congo, now Zaire, gained independence that year, and with it came years of unrest. And in Rwanda, a Belgian protectorate until 1962, the Hutu tribe waged a civil war against the ruling Tutsi. Many Tutsi fled the country, living in exile until they invaded their former homeland in 1990. The renewed war climaxed in the carnage of April 1994; soon after, the Rwandan Patriotic Front achieved victory and formed a new government.

The mountain gorillas have a long past but only a century of history, much of it turbulent. This history began in 1902 when a German officer, Capt. Oscar von Beringe, first encountered the apes—and shot two. In the next quarter century, collectors and hunters captured or killed more than 50 gorillas in the Virunga region. Carl Akeley of the American Museum of Natural History shot five gorillas in 1921, but he was so impressed with the apes that he prompted the Belgian government to establish Africa's first national park, Albert National Park, for them in 1925.

Belgian protection gave the gorillas relative peace until the turmoil in 1960, when the Belgian park staff fled. Civil war, insurrection, and the division of Albert Park into Zairean and Rwandan sectors demoralized the guard force. Cattle invaded the fragile uplands, and poachers roamed the forests. Their wire snares cut deep into the gorillas' flesh, but some managed to tear free. In one group of 11 gorillas two animals had only one hand each; another's hand was deformed. Gorilla hands and heads were sold as souvenirs to tourists. And the gorillas lost much forest. In 1958 the Belgians in Rwanda turned over 27 square miles of gorilla habitat to farmers, and in 1968 another 38 square miles, or 40 percent of the remaining forest, was given to a European-sponsored agricultural scheme. It was a desolate time, to which the gorillas could be only mute and passive witnesses.

Gorilla numbers plummeted. In 1960 I estimated about 450 in the Virunga region. Censuses during the 1970s showed around 275, and by 1981 there were only 250. During this critical time Dian Fossey, assisted for varying periods by Craig Sholley, David Watts, Kelly Stewart, Ian Redmond, Alexander Harcourt, and others, was at Karisoke. Dian harassed poachers with obsessive zeal. And she made the world aware of the gorilla's plight. Her heroic vigil helped the apes endure. However, her unyielding confrontational approach with local people, one that she termed "expedient action," ultimately cannot save wildlife. Conservation depends on the goodwill of the local population.

A new era in gorilla conservation began in 1978 when Amy Vedder and Bill Weber of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York arrived to establish gorilla tourism and an education program for the Rwandans. The following year their work was incorporated into the Mountain Gorilla Project, financed by an international consortium of conservation organizations. This integrated program of antipoaching, tourism, and education, all in cooperation with a receptive Rwandan government, had a marked impact on local attitudes.

A well-trained guard force maintained the national park. The education program created widespread awareness not just of the gorillas but also of the need to protect forests. The Virungas in Rwanda represent less than half of one percent of the country's land area but 10 percent of its water catchment. Without the forests to store water, streams would disappear during the dry season and deprive the dense human population of water. Four gorilla groups were soon habituated to tourists' viewing them at close range. Fees for tourists were high, yet so enthralled were visitors that gorilla viewing became at one time Rwanda's third largest earner of foreign exchange. Similar programs were later initiated on the Zaire and Uganda sides of the volcanoes.

The Mountain Gorilla Project also had an unforeseen impact. The people of Rwanda became proud of their apes. The gorillas became part of Rwanda's identity in the world, a part of the nation's vision of itself.

The 1980s were a golden time for the 30 or so gorilla groups on the Virunga volcanoes, and the population grew again, to about 320. The innovative program initiated by Amy Vedder and Bill Weber had become a classic story of conservation success, one that has been emulated in its approach many times.

Then the most recent civil war violated the gorillas' peaceful existence once again. Yet in spite of the turmoil, with soldiers of both factions traversing the forests, the gorillas have not been decimated. Indeed the Rwandan Patriotic Front expressed public concern for the gorillas' safety even while it was fighting. The new prime minister, Faustin Twagiramungu, has affirmed his country's commitment to the apes. Given the urgent and crushing social needs of Rwanda, this declaration is remarkable. For one species to fight for the survival of another, even in times of stress, is something new in evolution. In this, more than all our technology, lies our claim to being human.