Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Two More Gorillas Murdered: Down to 698?

The African Wildlife Foundation is reporting that two silverback mountain gorillas were recently killed by insurgents in Congo who invaded Virunga National Park. Read the report for details here. Mountain gorillas are highly endangered, with an estimated 700 left in the world - or should we now say 698? Although gorillas have made a comeback from the very edge of extinction in the late 1980's, they are still extremely vulnerable to extinction. Political unrest and instability is one of the greatest threats to the animal's survival.

Mountain gorillas do not survive in captivity (like Americans in New Hampshire, they apparently have the motto "Live Free or Die!"), so we are not able to do zoo-based breeding conservation programs to assist in their survival. Observations of these animals in the wild reveal that they live in tight family groups, protected by an older male silverback, and composed of immature males, females and babies or youngsters. They are not violent, but if provoked will protect family members, usually trying to scare off intruders rather than attack them. When a silverback is killed, the family group will split up as there is now no mature male for protection. Females can join other family groups, but then assume a low social status position, subordinate to the females there before them, which can make life tough on them and their offspring. Young gorillas may also be killed when their mothers join a new group, as nature has a strong impulse for the male in charge to get the females receptive to bearing his offspring, and he is generally not too interested in raising the offspring of others. (This behavior appears to be much like lions, but with lions the killing of cubs appears to be a given, whereas with gorillas it is not guaranteed and some young are adopted). Thus, the killing of a silverback with a family to take care of often results in the deaths of immature gorillas as well.

Dian Fossey lived with and studied gorillas in the wild, in the Parc de Volcans and the Virungas. She was murdered for her conservation work, and after many years, the man responsible for arranging her death, Protais Zigiranyirazo, was finally charged with her murder. You can read about the murder investigation here. Protais was supposed to be in charge of protecting the park and the gorillas, but Fossey had discovered he was actually assisting poachers and undermining her conservation efforts. Supposedly she was going to expose this, but was murdered in her sleep before she got the chance. (Protais has other problems as well, as he is charged with being one of the key organizers and instigators in the Rawandan genocide; you can read the official record of his case, still on appeal, here). The movie Gorillas in the Mist is supposedly Dian Fossey's story, though her book by the same name is far better if you are more interested in the gorillas she sought to protect than in her life story. Her detail of gorilla behavior in the book is fascinating, and she traces the lives (and deaths) of several family groups.

Currently, gorilla tourism helps to ensure their conservation in part, as high park fees go towards salaries for park guides and rangers who protect the gorillas from poachers. Several gorillas groups have been habituated to humans, and there are controls in place to ensure that each group is only exposed to limited human contact, so that throngs of tourists are not visiting them each day. Tourists are not allowed to touch the gorillas, and tourists have to trek into the jungle to find the gorillas in their natural habitats, as they are not contained. It's not an easy safari, but one I am greatly looking forward to taking in a few months, in both Uganda and Rwanda. (I want to see mountain gorillas in the wild, before it's too late, despite the risks of doing so.)

Unfortunately, due to the recent insurgency, Congolese park rangers were forced to flee in December, and shortly thereafter, left without protection, the two silverback gorillas were killed.

In 1999, a group of tourists on a gorilla safari were murdered by rebels from the Congo who crossed the border into Uganda. Read the article here. The goal was allegedly (per a note left by attackers) to destroy Uganda's economy. The killings had a sharp impact on tourism and were in fact very harmful to the economy. Uganda struggles to maintain a gorilla eco-tourism industry and strives to protect tourists from militia violence across the border. Supposedly it is relatively safe to travel there currently, but given the political instability in the Congo, there are of course no guarantees.

It's a shame the gorillas had the bad luck of being able to survive only in a habitat located in an area which has had decades of political unrest. Based in the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, the gorillas have no doubt seen their share of the seedy side of human beings over the years. This is not a problem we can solve, however. Each country has to work out its issues, and unfortunately, they have a tough time doing it.

What we can do is try to protect a small part of the only habitat on earth these animals have left, and try to arm and train rangers willing to protect the gorillas so they aren't killed for sport by insurgents, or for dinner meat for the militia either. I admire immensely the risks and sacrifices each park ranger makes...they risk their own lives to protect gorillas. If you want to assist in the protection and conservation of the few mountain gorillas we have left, visit the African Wildlife Foundation website and join or make a donation.

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