Caught in the Crossfire

The Legendary Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda are in Danger of Being Lost in the Mists

The endangered African mountain gorillas are suffering in the aftermath of the Rwandan civil war. Ten gorillas have died within the last 18 months, and it was gunshots and spears—not natural causes—that led to their deaths.

Studied by the late primatologist Dian Fossey, and popularized worldwide by the movie Gorillas in the Mist, the world’s remaining mountain gorillas are caught in the crossfire of human conflict. “The gorilla deaths are related to the war,” says Dr. James Foster, director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP), which has provided health care to the gorillas for the past decade. According to Foster, the gorillas are vulnerable to such war-related dangers as land mines, military patrols, habitat destruction and an increase in poaching and snaring activities.

Of the gorillas killed since the start of the war, three were the dominant silverback males of family groups. A silverback death often means the breakup of the social group, which ranges in size from two to 32 members. The splintering of a social group can trigger more deaths, as the new silverback leader will kill the infants in order to father his own offspring.

The fragile mountain gorilla population can’t afford any more human-caused deaths. The world’s 600 or so great apes live in two island populations, surrounded and separated by a sea of people. Some 300 inhabit the forested Virunga region, home to eight volcanoes which straddle the borders of Rwanda, Zaire and Uganda. This area is protected by all three countries as national parks. The other 300 gorillas live in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park of Uganda, just 20 miles to the north of the Virunga volcanoes. Foster feels it may be necessary to manipulate the two separate populations sometime in the future to preserve genetic variability.

Prior to the war, the last gorilla death at the hands of people was in 1983. With anti-poaching patrols securing the national park, and gorilla tourism providing the third-largest source of foreign exchange for Rwanda, the country and the gorillas prospered. The Virunga gorilla population increased from 250 in 1981 to 320 in 1989. But the war seems to have halted that trend.

“Before the war, the habitat could have supported more gorillas,” says Foster. “Since the war, no one has been able to survey the gorilla population or determine the amount of habitat destruction.” Between 1990 and 1994, the Rwandan civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes claimed at least half a million human lives and displaced one million refugees. The park headquarters and the MGVP’s laboratory in Rwanda were destroyed, as well as the Karisoke Research Center, where Fossey studied the gorillas for 18 years.

“There is still a significant amount of military activity in the park, which causes habitat destruction and disruption of anti-poaching patrols,” says Dr. Jonathan Sleeman, the MGVP’s field veterinarian in Rwanda. The gorillas are threatened by habitat encroachment, poachers and an increase in snaring activities. Snares have always been a serious threat to the gorillas, as hunters illegally set their traps to catch small game for food. While not intended for the gorillas, the snares cause injuries that can result in loss of limb, and even life for a gorilla.

The gravest threat to the survival of the species is habitat encroachment, particularly farm-based development. Sprawling refugee camps border the Zaire side of the park, and refugees illegally cut down the trees for firewood and shelters. Human and medical waste dumped in the park increase the risk of spreading diseases, for which the gorillas have little immunity.

With a pre-war population of roughly nine million people in an area the size of Maryland, Rwanda is one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated nations. Eighty percent of the population is under 18 years old, and agriculture is the primary means of survival. Ninety-five percent of the people farm, which has exhausted the land. With the Rwandan population expected to double within the next 25 years, maintaining the gorillas’ forested habitat will be increasingly difficult. While the issue appears to be a choice of helping people or gorillas, it’s really a matter of helping both species survive.

Bill Weber of the Wildlife Conservation Society conducted a three-year study of the Virunga watershed region. “The only water available during the two- to three-month dry season is in valley bottoms fed by two forests, the Virunga being one of them,” says Weber. While the Virunga Forest in Rwanda represents less than half of one percent of the country’s land area, it accounts for 10 percent of its water catchment.

“Rwanda benefits from the park because the forest provides water for the country and revenue from gorilla tourism,” says Ruth Keesling of the Morris Animal Foundation, MGVP’s sponsor. “In the long run, the gorillas can help Rwanda.”

But what happens in the short run is critical to the gorillas’ immediate survival. To combat human-caused injuries and life-threatening diseases, MGVP provides snare removal, medical care, disease and physiological research for the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. MGVP has expanded its work beyond Rwanda, as many gorilla groups also spend much of their time in Uganda and Zaire. In cooperation with Makrere University in Uganda, MGVP is training veterinarians from the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine to administer gorilla health care in the field. In turn, the college provides technical support.

Since the free-ranging mountain gorillas, unaware of man-made borders, spend time in Rwanda, Uganda and Zaire, MGVP does the same. “It’s amusing that with all the international conventional wisdom, the gorillas seem to have thought of this approach first,” says Foster.