Hope for Africa's last mountain gorillas
By Ed Stoddard
VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, Rwanda, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Like a king on a throne, Guhonda shows royal disinterest in the human intruders, passing them only a casual glance as he sits impassively on a mound of crumpled bamboo.
His calmness in the presence of people is comforting, for at a weight of over 200 kg (440 pounds), 30-year-old Guhonda is the largest of the roughly 350 or so mountain gorillas who inhabit the lush slopes of the stunning Virunga National Park.
"He sometimes charges but if he does don't be scared. He's just trying to show you he's boss," says Francis, a veteran guide who has seen the massive ape in action before.
That must be a terrifying experience, but on this day the formidable-looking Guhonda is not bothered by human company.
After tossing the humans a final bored look, he ambles a few metres to join other members of his clan.
Two youngsters -- an 18-month-old female Turiho and a one-year-old male Impurunza -- play noisily and wrestle with each other, but Guhonda the family patriarch is not bothered as he stretches out on his back for a mid-morning rest.
YOUNGSTERS AN ENCOURAGING SIGN
The presence of babies and youngsters is an encouraging sign, as there are only a few hundred mountain gorillas left in the wild, making them one of the rarest large mammals on earth.
Their survival stems partly from the efforts of the famed American researcher Dian Fossey, who brought their plight to the attention of the world before her murder in 1985.
About half of the gorillas live in the Virunga National Park, a chain of extinct volcanoes that straddles Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The rest are found in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of southwest Uganda.
"With the growing number of babies that we see, we believe the number of gorillas is increasing," said warden David Mugisha.
The last census taken about a decade ago put their total number at 650 but a new one is underway in Uganda with counts in Rwanda and Congo to follow. Mugisha thinks their numbers may now be closer to 700.
But their long-term survival is far from certain.
For starters, the neighbourhood is very tough.
The region's instability is underscored by the four Rwandan soldiers armed with AK-47s who escort the guides and their clients through the dense bamboo thickets.
Congo next door is bogged down in a brutal civil war and its remote eastern forests are used as a base for a number of shadowy rebel groups, including the Hutu militias responsible for Rwanda's horrific 1994 genocide.
Two of the majestic animals were shot by rebels last year. Ominously, the rebels were reported for the first time to have eaten the carcasses, breaking a local taboo about eating primates which could set a dangerous precedent.
Between 1995 and 2000, roaming militiamen are believed to have killed 18 of the animals, but none of them were eaten.
Habitat destruction has also taken a toll on the animals.
Like the other great apes, the chimpanzees of Africa and the orang-utans of the southeast Asian islands of Sumatra and Borneo, gorillas depend utterly on dwindling tropical rainforests for their survival.
In Rwanda, the remaining forests are clearly clashing with the needs of a poor and growing population.
Row after row of potatoes are cultivated right up to the unfenced entrance of the park. The forest literally begins where the potatoes end.
"We have had settlers and cultivators encroaching on the park but we have to stop them," said Mugisha.
That may not be easy.
The winding drive along dirt roads to the park takes you through village after village teeming with children.
With over eight million people crammed into a country just over 26,000 sq km (10,040 sq mile), Rwanda is one of Africa's most densely populated and poorest countries.
"You won't be able to maintain the conservation efforts if the human populations in the area are doing worse than the animals," said Kevin Kuykendall, a paleo-anthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Primates around the world are under threat, with more than 130 of the planet's primate species listed as endangered.
There are only a few thousand eastern lowland gorillas left. Wild chimpanzees, which numbered more than a million in Africa a century ago, could be extinct within two decades, according to United Nations' estimates.
TOURISTS COMING BACK
Conservationists hope that tourists and their dollars will help the mountain gorillas by creating jobs in the area, thereby giving the local population a vested interest in the animals.
The cost of a trek into the forest to view them is $250 per person.
There are four family groups which have become used to tourists, ranging in size from Guhonda's troop of 11 to one that numbers 36. There are also three family groups that are being studied by researchers.
A maximum of eight tourists is taken at any one time and once the gorillas are sighted, visitors can spend only one hour with them to avoid the spread of human disease to the primates.
Intrepid tourists are trickling back to the park since it was shut in 1998 for security reasons, brushing aside the possible dangers -- eight foreign tourists were murdered by rebels three years ago in Uganda while on a gorilla tour -- for the opportunity to glimpse such rare but wonderful animals.
Reopened in the middle of 1999, 1,313 people visited the gorillas in 2000 on the Rwandan side and 2,155 came in 2001. At close to 200, the numbers for January this year are well above last January's total of 121.
The gorillas don't seem to mind.
As the youngsters scamper about, Guhonda lazily scratches his stomach while a young female grooms his hair for lice.
None seem bothered by their human observers, though man is the only predator these gentle giants of the rain forest need to fear.
Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited