Among the last of its kind, a young gorilla peers from its leafy refuge in Rwanda—a nation bloodied by ethnic slaughter.
Among the last of its kind, a young gorilla peers from its leafy refuge in Rwanda—a nation bloodied by ethnic slaughter.

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?

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.

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