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The Mountain Gorillas of Virunga


There are certain corners of the world were geologic tension seems to translate directly into human stress. In this regard the Great Rift Valley is the defining feature of Africa. It begins in the restless Levantine and runs through the Horn of Africa before forming the Great Lakes and the Central African highlands. All three are landscapes burdened by poverty, population compression, environmental decay, war and instability.

The Central African Highlands

Of all of these, though, it is the lakes and mountains of Central Africa that are perhaps the most poignant. Here lies one of the most profoundly beautiful and most ecologically energetic of all the world’s biodiversity hotspots, and yet also one of the most blighted. The efforts of many an august organization and individual have been devoted to highlighting and protecting the wildlife of this region, and in particular such species as the lowland and mountain gorillas. Of course the gorillas are just one of hundreds, if not thousands of endangered species in Central Africa, and while some local governments make genuine efforts towards co-operation with international conservation efforts, most are wantonly indifferent. This too often leaves the fate of endangered antelope and primates in the hands of corrupt local officials, warlords and desperately poor tribesmen trading bushmeat or charcoal simply to survive.

The bushmeat trade has not historically affected the diminishing mountain gorilla population of the Virunga highlands, whose future tends to hang more in the balance of diminishing habitat than hunting or poaching. This was confirmed on July 22 2007 when 10 members of the Congolese Rudengo family of mountain gorillas were slaughtered for no apparent reason, and their bodies left untouched. National Geographic Magazine revealed in a 2008 investigation into this tragedy that the deaths had occurred largely as a consequence of the lucrative charcoal trade.

The African Charcoal Trade

The African charcoal trade is a visible stain on the African landscape. From Mozambique to the Ethiopian highlands it is symptomatic both of population growth outstripping national infrastructure and the rapid urbanization of Africa. Without anything resembling electricity or gas delivery to an overwhelming number of rural and urban homesteads it has been locally manufactured charcoal that has tended to fill the gap. Manufactured in cottage industries all over Africa, the charcoal industry has probably been the single most important factor in general deforestation, but also one of the few reliable economic contributors to an impoverished region. In the highlands of Central Africa, that axis of past and present failed states running through Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, it is a huge and lucrative industry. It is also bitterly contested, vitally necessary and at the same time the main reason why the critically endangered African mountain gorilla population is simply running out of space.

Cleaning House

There are currently an estimated 720 Mountain Gorillas surviving in the wild. These are divided up mainly between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Rwanda and Uganda protection is reasonably effective, particularly so in Uganda, but in the DRC the odds stacked against the long-term survival of this species are huge. This is especially so when the very officials charged with the administration of the protected areas are those who conspire to destroy them. In March of this year Honore Mashagiro, Director of The Virunga National Park, home of the few surviving Congolese gorillas, was arrested for coordinating the July 2007 killing in order to facilitate the ongoing manufacture of charcoal.

The rounding up of several rangers under Mashagiro’s charge, and the cleaning up by Congolese wildlife officials of a particularly dirty stain on an already grubby record, followed this high profile arrest. The deaths were a very high price to pay for the mass publicity that followed, but it took the sight of the massive 500lb corpse of patriarch Senkwekwe being stretchered out of the forest by local tribesmen to illustrate the wanton idiocy of the episode.

Success Stories

The news is not all bad, however, and thankfully the Democratic Republic of Congo is not the only custodian of these precious creatures. Since the dramatic political upheaval of the mid-1990s Rwanda has experienced something of a renaissance, and is emerging as one of the more stable and accessible of the Central African nations. The northern frontier of Rwanda straddles the volcano region of the Virunga Highlands where the local gorilla population is protected. Increasing numbers of tourists nowadays are able to visit the iconic Volcanoes National Park where four habituated groups can be closely observed.

Uganda likewise provides shelter to some 350 of the surviving 720 individuals, and it was out of that country this week that a snippet of good news emerged. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) told Agence France-Presse that a 13-member family was now ready for exposure and interaction with tourists. This was after it had been reported that a family previously in occupation of the area had crossed the border into the DRC towards an uncertain future. The process of habituation was begun in October 2006.

Gorilla Tourism

The hefty premium of US$500 per person charged for the brief privilege of visiting and spending time in proximity of these creatures is a large part of what keeps the Ugandan population whole, and reasonably safe. ‘The population in Uganda is stable and can even increase,’ said UWA spokesperson Lillian Nsubuga, although little optimism could be expressed for those residing across the border in DRC.

For the time being, therefore, the mountain gorillas of the east Virunga are safe, and the industry that supports and showcases them secure. Scarce good news in a troubled corner of the world, and those with an interest in the conservation of these majestic creatures, and that is all of us, have much to be grateful for in the short term.