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Are we Killers or Saviours

of the

Mountain Gorilla?

by Waterose


The human species is fascinated with itself. This fascination is mirrored in the natural curiosity and amazement when studying other species; the great apes being the most similar to human beings and the most fascinating to study. Much can be learned from these gentle creatures whose behaviours closely resemble those of human beings. Natures relationship with its occupants lies in delicate balance, and any disruption to that balance can cause the annihilation of a species. Human interference with the natural ecosystems of this planet put humans at serious risk of becoming an endangered species like the gorillas of Africa. Disruptions to the natural habitat caused by human influences: scientific study, economics, and war, almost decimated the mountain gorilla population. It is only through careful conservation and preservation that the population of the mountain gorillas has begun to increase.

Gorilla populations are confined to central Africa and may be divided into three subspecies differentiated by morphological variations attributed to habitat variations: the Western lowland gorilla (Gorilla, gorilla, gorilla), the Eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla, gorilla, graueri), and the Mountain gorilla (Gorilla, gorilla, beringei) (Dixson, 1981). Population estimates were: 10,000 Western lowland gorilla (Fossey, 1983); 258 Eastern lowland gorilla (Biological Conservation, 1993), and 300 Mountain gorilla (Science, 1995).

The ranges of the gorillas may be defined in geographical terms. They range in an equatorial belt across central Africa between five degrees north and five degrees south of the equator (Schaller, 1963). The Western lowland gorilla ranges in the Congo and Gaboni lowland basin on the west side of the African continent. The Eastern lowland gorilla ranges in the eastern lowlands of Zaire. The Mountain gorilla ranges in the eight volcanic mountains comprising the Virungas at the edge of the great African rift valley. The Virunga mountains reach elevations from 11,000 to 15,000 feet. The Virunga mountain range of the Mountain gorilla is bordered by three countries: Zaire, Rwanda and Uganda. The majority of the Mountain gorillas are in Rwanda (Fossey, 1983).

Gorilla, gorilla, beringei was discovered on October 17, 1902 on the ridges of the volcanic Virunga mountains by German explorer Captain Oscar Von Beringe who shot two gorillas for scientific study (Schaller, 1964).

[Note for 2002: According to Captain Beringe's grandson, Dr. Andreas von Beringe, the Captain's given name is actually Robert and not Oscar].

Following Von Beringe, between 1902 and 1925, at least fifty-four specimens were killed for scientific study (Schaller, 1964). The trend to kill for science was dramatically changed in 1925 by Carl Akeley who convinced King Albert to establish the Albert National Park to protect the animals of the chain of Virunga mountains. Following Akeley, came Walter Baumgartel, George Schaller, Dr. Leakey, and Dr. Dian Fossey; all of whom fought to preserve the Mountain gorilla. The plight of the Mountain gorilla captured the world's attention with the death of Dian Fossey in 1985, and the subsequent release of the movie "Gorillas in the Mist" in 1988 based on Fossey's book, published in 1983.

Dian Fossey was recruited by Dr. Louis B. Leakey, a leading primatologist of the times, and first met the Mountain gorillas of the Virungas in 1963. She undertook a long term study of the Mountain Gorillas, with the primary objective being to count the remaining gorilla population, or undertake a census. The 1981 census findings counted a total of 242 gorillas (Fossey, 1983).

Dian had no formal training in science, yet managed, through her long term work with the gorillas, to obtain her doctorate from Cambridge in May 1976 (Mowatt, 1987). She founded the Karisoke Research Centre in 1967 which continues to study the Mountain Gorillas high in the volcanic mountains. Throughout her tenure at Karisoke, Dian fought a constant battle with natives and government to protect "her gorillas" from poaching and procurement for public zoos (Mowatt, 1987). She established anti-poaching patrols and the international Digit fund to raise funds to protect the gorillas. Her conflicts with native people and government ultimately led to her unresolved murder on December 26,1985. She was found in her cabin at Karisoke brutally murdered by a panga, a native machete-like blade that she had confiscated from poachers earlier. "The last words she wrote in her journal, carefully printed in block letters on the final page: 'When you realise the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.' The rest is silence (ibid.) ."

Scientific study of the great apes has provided tremendous information. The primary objective is to understand the human-like apes and to gain insight into human evolution. Scientific studies provide census data, behavioural information and physiological knowledge. These studies have raised the public awareness to the plight of the gentle apes, inspiring significant amounts of funds to be donated for use in preservation and conservation.

Conversely, scientific study has directly caused many deaths of the gorillas. Specimens have been shot and killed to be placed in museums for display. Entire gorilla families have been slaughtered to capture infants for zoos. There are no surviving Mountain gorillas in zoos today. The only species capable of breeding in captivity is the Lowland gorilla. Inadvertently, through the habituation process, scientists and students introduce human diseases to the gentle apes which prove fatal to some (New Scientist, 1986). Science maintains a tenacious involvement with the Mountain gorillas.

Scientific involvement with the mountain gorillas has been primarily foreign influenced. The indigenous cultures of the Virunga have their own special impact on the Mountain gorilla population. The Mountain gorilla population is concentrated in Rwanda with a land area of 24,950 square kilometres and an estimated population of 7.3 million (1990), with a projected population of 19.7 million by 2020 (Africa, 1992). The population density is 286 persons per square kilometre; the highest density in Africa (ibid.). The inhabitants rely primarily on farming and cattle raising. Three distinct human cultures evolved in the Virungas: the Batwa people are primarily engaged in hunting activities (poaching); the Hutu people are primarily engaged in farming, and the Watusi (Tutsi) people are primarily engaged in herding cattle (Fossey, 1983). The economic needs of the indigenous people in the homeland of the Mountain gorillas have effected the gorilla population. The Hutu need land to cultivate food for their own needs and to generate cash crops (ibid.). Habitat encroachment is the direct result of clearing land to cultivate pyrethrum which is a small daisy like flower manufactured into a natural insecticide and sold in the European markets to generate foreign cash (ibid.). The habitat encroachment and deforestation of the tropical forests on the Virungas has had a serious effect, described as follows:

"The main threat to Gorillas is forest clearance, e.g. a 450 sq. km. area of mixed forest...which contained an important concentration of Gorillas, had by 1980 decreased to less than 250 sq. km., cattle ranchers and cultivation replacing the other 200 sq. km. ...Gorillas could become extinct in the area unless positive action was taken... Disturbance within conservation areas, resulting from the illegal use of the resources (wood and water collectors, smugglers and poachers) is detrimental to gorillas. Gorillas, especially juveniles, are highly at risk from wire snares set to capture small game. While Gorillas are not hunted for food nor as crop pests in the Virungas, a peculiar threat has acted on that population. As well as being killed in order that infants can be captured for sale, adults, especially males, have since 1976 been killed so that their skulls can be sold as souvenirs to tourists and expatriate residents." (IUCN Red Book, 1988).

The Tutsi use the mountain meadows to graze their cattle, which destroys gorilla habitat. This activity has forced the Mountain gorillas to retreat to higher altitudes where they are more susceptible to disease (Mowatt, 1987). There is less food for the gorillas. Dian Fossey graphically describes the impact of the Tutsi: "The herders ruin the habitat...because they have far too many cattle. They keep ten times what they need, just for prestige. There are so many up here now - they churn the ground until it looks as if it were plowed. They crush the plants the gorillas eat, shut them out of the best feeding areas, and force them higher and higher up the slopes into the cold and wet until they get pneumonia. Those high altitudes are deadly for them. Let Tutsi cut down their herds to only what they need and graze them outside the park" (ibid.).

Historically, the native governments procured infant gorillas for sale to zoos to obtain foreign cash (Fossey, 1983). As recently as March of 1995, the capture of an infant involved the murder and slaughter of four Mountain gorillas. "Two of the dead animals were juveniles, one was a sub-adult male and the fourth was an adult female. According to Annette Lanjouw of the International Gorilla Conservation Program ... the poachers were probably after the female's infant because the female was lactating so that is the only plausible explanation" (New Scientist, 1995). Native Batwa poachers killed the apes to sell the skulls and hands to obtain money to support their families. They also used parts of the gorillas to make potent summu magic for themselves. Poachers continue to threaten the survival of the great apes. Presently, the native governments have recognised the Mountain gorillas as a valuable economic resource.

As an economic resource, gorilla tourism ranks third in Rwanda for obtaining foreign currency (Africa, 1992). Coffee and tea exports are the first and second producers of foreign currency. The development of gorilla tourism originated with the formation of the Albert National Park which evolved into three independent parks in the Virungas after the withdrawal of Belgium influence in the 1960's (Schaller, 1964). The three parks, each under a different government are: Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda; Parc de Virunga in Zaire; and, a small park in Uganda (International Wildlife, 1988). Foreign influence convinced the local governments that gorilla eco-tourism would be a valuable economic resource through education programs in the local schools and for the general public. The Mountain Gorilla Project, established in 1979, habituated gorilla groups exclusively for the purpose of eco-tourism (ibid.). Foreign tourists paid approximately 100 dollars for a pass which entitled them to one visit with the Mountain gorillas. The program became so successful, that applicants had to book years in advance. Tourism visits escalated to 7,000 per year. Gorilla tourism peaked in 1990 with 200 tourists per week visiting the Mountain gorillas (Newsweek, 1993). Eco-tourism of the Mountain gorillas and the Mountain Gorilla Project had a positive impact on the gorilla population because after ten years it caused:

"Increased park revenues from US $10,000 to more than US $800,000; a five-fold increase in the number of visitors to the park; a doubling of park guards; and, a newly built park headquarters and visitor's information area; no gorillas were killed by poachers since 1983 [to 1992]; a drop from 50 per cent of the local farmers to less than 20 per cent who think the park should be made available for agriculture; about a 15 per cent increase in the gorilla population since the mid-seventies, from around 270 to 370 (1986)" (Africa, 1992).

While eco-tourism of the Mountain gorilla proved to be a promising viable solution for both the survival of the gorilla population and survival of the native people, other conflicts developed in the 1990's threatening to destroy all that had been preserved. Civil war erupted between the Tutsi tribe and the Hutu tribe (National Audobon, 1993). Caught in the crossfire of bombings and machine-gun fire, a mature silverback male was shot and killed in May of 1992. The conflict caused the evacuation of the Karisoke Research Centre in February 1993, which was commandeered by poachers. The war and conflict brought gorilla eco-tourism to an abrupt halt. A cease-fire order in March 1992 made it possible for the Karisoke Research Centre to re-open under strained circumstances with the future very uncertain. Civil strife and conflict continued until July 1994 disrupting local economic activity and stability; displacing 1.5 million people into refugee camps and forcing UN involvement to supply foreign humanitarian aid. Other 1994 casualties of the civil war:

"It is true that Effie, the 42 year old Queen Mother of gorillas, died during the height of fighting last April [1994] ... [and] ... there are rumours that Mkono, a blackback, or adolescent male, gorilla, was killed after stepping on a land mine (MacLeans, 1995)."

Despite the heavy casualties of the recent war, and the ongoing battle of habitat encroachment, the Mountain gorilla population continues to survive in the Virunga mountains. "This dire threat, however, has inspired one of the most intense conservation efforts in Africa's history ... the World Bank is creating Africa's first conservation trust fund ... In January (1995), the bank approved a $4 million international endowment that will generate about $100,000 per year. Sixty per cent of the money is earmarked for home-grown conservation and development projects ... and the remaining forty per cent will be used for forest conservation research and park management" (Science, 1995).

The graph in figure 1 illustrates the population of the Virunga Mountain Gorillas from 1950 to 1995. The data points are based on the numbers quoted in the various sources in the reference section. Figure 1

Figure 1. Population of the Virunga Mountain Gorillas from 1950 to 1995.

Survival of the Mountain gorillas in the Virunga mountains has been a battle ever since the influence of human intrusion in 1902. The foreign influence of the scientific community caused serious harm to the Mountain gorilla population in the collection of specimens for study in museums and zoos; the foreign influence of tourism caused harm by exposing the gorilla population to infectious diseases; the foreign influence of economic viability caused significant deforestation of natural habitat; and ultimately human warfare significantly disrupted the delicate balance. Human interference with the Mountain gorillas of the Virungas serves well as a model to illustrate what humankind is capable of doing to its' own planetary habitat and race. Like the African gorillas, it is only by careful conservation and preservation of the natural ecological systems that humankind will be able to survive.


Audobon. July 1987. "With Civil War Over, Mountain Gorilla Numbers are Increasing." 20.

Biological Conservation. 1993. "A Census of the Eastern Lowland Gorillas Gorilla Gorilla Graueri in Kahuzi-Biega National Park with Reference to Mountain Gorillas G. G. Beringei in the Virungas Region, Zaire." V64. Pp. 83-89.

The Conservation Atlas of Tropical Forests: Africa. 1992. "Burundi and Rwanda." Simon and Schuster. New York.

Dixson, A.F. 1981. The Natural History of the Gorilla. Columbia University Press. Boston.

Fossey, D. 1983. Gorillas in the Mist. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston.

International Wildlife. 1933. "Up Close with Gorillas." V.18: 4-11.

IUCN Red Data Book. 1988. "Threatened Primates of Africa." IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre. Cambridge. U.K.

MacLeans. 1995. "High Above it all: How War Brought Peace to Rwanda's Gorillas." and "Aftermath of Genocide." Vol. 108. No. 6.:32-35.

Mowatt, F. 1987. Virunga: The Passion of Dian Fossey. McLelland and Stewart. Toronto.

National Audobon Society. 1993. "Gorillas Versus Guerrillas." Vol. 95. No. 5.:22-24.

New Scientist. 27 February 1986. "Coughs and Faeces Spread Diseases that Kill Mountain Gorillas." 109.1497:20.

New Scientist. 8 April 1995. "Mountain Gorillas Fall Prey to Poachers' Spears." 146.1972.

Newsweek. July 19, 1993. "Seeking Gorillas Among Guerrillas." Pp 45.

Schaller, G. B. 1964. The Year of the Gorilla. University of Chicago Press. Chicago.

Science. June 1993. "Comeback for Karisoke. 1429.

Science. 24 Mar. 1995. "Endangered Species - Uganda Enlists Locals in the Battle to Save the Gorillas." 267.5205. Pp. 1761-1762.

World Press Review. September1992. "Wildlife: Gorillas in the Midst". 48.

Postcript, December 1998

In retrospect; after reviewing this paper I wish to make these comments. This was my first paper, written during my first term at Langara College, in Vancouver, BC, Canada in the fall of 1995. This paper could be improved with some html graphics, maps, and more detailed and higher quality scientific citations for the paper content; alas, please accept my humble apologies. Even so, this topic is one that is still dear to my heart, and reminds me of the anthropogenic influence upon the magnificent Killer Whales that frequent the coast of British Columbia. If this topic interests you, please visit my Environmental Law paper about the whales.

Mountain Gorilla Update 2000

I recently received a letter written by Sebastien Honore that provides a synopsis of the current state of affairs for the Mountain Gorilla and he has graciously given his permission for me to post it on this website at Mountain Gorilla Update 2000.

If you have additional information that you would like to post on this website about the Mountain Gorillas, please email me.

Mailemail Waterose

Mountain Gorilla Update 2002

From an Article in the Victoria Times Colonist, January 27 2002 based on an article by Natalie Angier from the New York Times Beyond the mist, the joy of gorillas in Rwanda

This articles features claims by Bill Webber and Amy Vedder that they are responsible for the increase of the mountain gorilla population near Rwanda from about 250 to 360 over the last twenty-five years.

The good news is the increased population count; however, I wonder what Dian and Digit would have to say about the Vedder's self acclaimed praise.

Index of other Environmental Papers and Articles


Mailemail Waterose

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