Most of the Europeans who entered the area were concerned with political control and cultural change, but some of them were explorers and scientists interested in seeing the land and its plants and animals.
While the existence of the lowland gorillas in the Congo Basin was known to the West for hundreds of years, the existence of mountain gorillas in the Virunga area was only first observed by outsiders late in the last century. The explorer Henry Stanley expressed his belief in the 1890s that gorillas existed in the mountains in the northeast Congo. In 1898, while hunting elephants in the Virunga Volcano region of Central Africa, the explorer E. Grogan came upon the skeleton of a gigantic ape, later believed to be that of a mountain gorilla. However, it was not until 1902 that the mountain gorilla subspecies (Gorilla gorilla beringei) was scientifically recognized and described for the first time.
It often seemed as if the mountain gorilla might be doomed to extinction in the same century in which it was discovered. As the human population around the Virungas grew, more and more of the land was converted to pastures and planted fields, pushing the gorillas into smaller and smaller areas. Hunters, both African and European, killed the gorillas for meat and sport. It was not until the 1920s, following the slaughter of over 50 mountain gorillas in the Virunga Volcano region alone, that a systematic study of these creatures and a movement to preserve their numbers began. In 1925, Albert National Park was established in the Belgian Congo. The park land, which included all of the Virunga Volcanoes, was designated as a sanctuary for mountain gorillas. Naturalists coming to study these shy and gentle creatures included George Schaller, who undertook the first major research studies in the 1950s.
In 1957, as the growing population began to put pressure on the primitive forest of Albert National Park, the Belgian government turned over some 10 km2 (27 mi2) of the national park to native farmers in need of land. During the next few years, social and political unrest led to the independence of Rwanda, Congo, and Uganda, resulting in the park's division into three administrative units. Cutting of forest within designated park lands was still occurring in the Ugandan sector during the early 1960s. Conversion of nonpark forest lands to the south of the Virungas left a few small, isolated patches of forest. The few gorillas living in these areas quickly disappeared. This experience demonstrated that the gorilla's ecosystem, like all natural systems, requires a minimum physical area for survival.
In an effort to increase national income, the Rwandan government turned an additional 98 km2 (38 mi2) of park land over to a European agricultural scheme to raise the cash crop pyrethrum in the well-watered volcanic soils above about 2,989 m (9,800 ft) in elevation. The European companies built large-scale terraces high on the volcanic slopes of the Virungas.
The photo to the left shows the boundary between the rainforests on the volcanoes' sides and the large plantations established by the Europeans. The boundary is very sharp: dense forest on one side of a little fence and intense farming on the other. The long lines of trees marking the boundaries of the plantations seen in the right portion of the photo are visible in satellite images. Photo: Courtesy of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund
In the late 1950s, the mountain gorillas numbered only about 300 in the Virungas and about another 300 in the Bwindi National Park in Uganda. During the next few years, the gorillas were extensively studied (and physically defended from poachers) by foreign scientists, such as Dian Fossey. Their work led to international recognition of the value and imminent demise of the mountain gorillas unless something was done. That something turned out to be ecotourism, foreign tourists paying large amounts of money to visit the gorillas in their natural habitat. Established in the late 1970s, ecotourism became the third largest source of foreign income for Rwanda by the mid-1980s, surpassing the declining value of the pyrethrum crop. Preserving the forest in which the gorillas lived became more profitable than plowing it under for cash crops.
As a result of ecotourism, the three nations were able to create a large, well- educated, and dedicated park staff. In Uganda, the government also forced hundreds of farmers who had been allowed to move into park lands during the 1960s to move back down the mountain and off park land. In theory, it would allow the forest to regrow and, presumably, allow the gorilla population to increase. This move, however, caused much hardship for the farmers involved. Meanwhile, the mountain gorillas became a national symbol in Rwanda.
Unfortunately, struggles between the different ethnic groups in the area threaten to destroy the remaining mountain gorilla habitat. Several armed conflicts have occurred periodically between the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda ever since independence in 1960. In the recent civil war, the Tutsi regained control of Rwanda. Since the previous government consisted of ethnic Hutu, the appointed Rwandan park staff consisted of Hutu as well. When Tutsi armies overran the area in 1994, the Hutu park staff scattered into exile. This resulted in the loss of skilled personnel and park equipment. The victorious Tutsi vowed to rebuild the park, but constant civil strife has kept the tourists out for the last three years. Thus, for the time being, ecotourism in the Virungas is dead.
The civil war has caused other major problems for the Virunga habitat: physical disturbance of the habitat by refugees and military actions, including the cutting of wood in the forest to support the cooking and heating needs of the nearly 2 million Hutu refugees. Although the forest inhabited by the gorillas has not yet been significantly damaged, pressure is mounting due to the energy and nutritional needs of the refugees.
The food and clothing needs of the refugees have been supported largely by international charitable organizations for the last three years. But money is starting to be diverted to other more pressing situations, such as Bosnia. In addition, the Congolese government, recently embroiled in a political takeover, is continuing military attacks with Rwandan Tutsi on both Rwandan and Congolese Hutu living in Congo. There is evidence that these massacres are continuing.
In such a setting, one wonders how much the gorillas are now worth, and whether they and their forest refuge will survive much longer.
"Sadly, the most important fact we have learned about gorillas in recent years is that if humankind wishes to share this planet with the apes in centuries to come we can never ignore their existence, falter in vigilance, or fail in total commitment; we must cherish and protect the gorillas forevermore." (Schaller,1963).
Left: Typical mountain gorilla
habitat. Photo: Courtesy of the
Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund
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