Gorilla Thefts Threatens Survival
By RODRIQUE NGOWI
.c The Associated Press
VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, Rwanda (AP) - Nyagakaganga lay on his stomach, stroking his chin with an enormous palm before plucking off an insect and popping it into his mouth with obvious relish.
But the keen, brown eyes of the rare, 16-year-old mountain gorilla never left the other species of primates standing six feet away, staring and whispering with excitement while trying to take some good snapshots.
It was a century ago that Europeans first encountered the gorillas in tiny Rwanda, then a German colony. On Oct. 17, 1902, an expedition led by German Capt. Friedrich Robert von Beringe shot two gorillas and sent one set of remains back to a Berlin museum, where it eventually was identified as a new subspecies of gorilla - Gorilla gorilla beringei.
Rwanda is commemorating that discovery by declaring Thursday to be National Gorilla Day.
The mountain gorillas have been the focus of international research and conservation efforts. Those researchers included American Dian Fossey, who set up camp in the park in the 1960s and documented her work in the book ``Gorillas in the Mist.''
Fossey waged a campaign against the poaching of the local population. With the population now at an estimated 650, a new menace looms - the theft of young gorillas for sale to collectors.
In May, unidentified poachers killed two adult gorillas and stole an infant. On Oct. 4, police seized the missing gorilla from three men as they tried to sell it for $20,000 to detectives posing as customers, said Chief Inspector Tony Kuramba, the police spokesman.
``At this price, our primates are not safe,'' Kuramba said. ``This is the biggest threat facing the survival of the gorillas today.''
The mountain gorillas can stand up to 6 feet tall, weigh up to 425 pounds and live up to 53 years in captivity, according to the African Wildlife Foundation. A full-grown adult male is twice as large as the female.
They are vegetarians, eating wild celery, bamboo, stinging nettles and certain fruits. Their main predators are leopards, crocodiles and humans - not just from poaching, but also from such diseases as measles.
There are no mountain gorillas living in captivity, and the theft of baby gorillas is alarming conservation groups, said Francois Bizimungu, senior conservation official at the national park in northwestern Rwanda.
Experts are struggling to determine whether it is safe to reintegrate the recovered female gorilla - which is about 3 years old - with the Susa group of gorillas from which she was believed to have been stolen, Kuramba said.
``We don't know how to go about it or whether it is safe to do so, because nothing like this has happened before,'' Bizimungu said. ``There is no experience from which we can learn.''
Some 350 of the mountain gorillas are found in the Virunga Mountains, a chain of extinct volcanoes that straddles Rwanda, Uganda and Congo. The remaining subspecies live in a separate national park in Uganda.
Because the two parks are not connected, the theft of every individual gorilla shrinks the gene pool of the subspecies and threatens the genetic viability and long-term survival of the mountain gorilla, Bizimungu said.
But 9-year-old Nyarusizi was blissfully unaware of the threat as he plucked bamboo shoots and deftly peeled off outer layers before eating the juicy parts, seasoning them with handfuls of nettles.
The juvenile gorilla was more concerned with holding his ground among the 36 gorillas in the Susa group after losing a hand to a snare set by poachers from villages bordering the park.
Armed patrols largely have been successful in discouraging poachers in the sanctuary. Authorities plan to begin sharing tourism revenues with villagers living near Africa's first national park, established by King Albert when Rwanda was a Belgian trust territory after persuasion by American naturalist Carl Akeley.
Authorities plan to use some of the revenues to finance moneymaking activities for villagers and to build them hospitals and schools, said Alexander Lyambabaje, the tourism minister.
``The plan is to make neighboring villagers benefit directly from the park,'' said Lyambabaje, watching a group of baby gorillas dangling precariously from thin bamboo branches.
``Once they are convinced that the park is beneficial, they would be more committed to protect the park, and this is key to long-term survival of mountain gorillas.''
On the Net
Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund - http://www.mountaingorillaconservationfund.org
International Gorilla Conservation Program - http://www.awf.org
Morris Animal Foundation - http://www.MorrisAnimalFoundation.org
Gorilla Journal - http://berggorilla.de/english/gjournal/texte/24beringe.html
10/17/02 01:54 EDT
Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.