email a friend iconprinter friendly iconA Grim Struggle for Survival
Page [ 6 ] of 13

Uncle Bert led the fleeing group to the safety of Visoke's slopes. The bloodstained poachers were left to celebrate their victory.

After Ian Redmond discovered Digit's mutilated body, we captured one of the killers. He revealed the names of his five accomplices. All but two were imprisoned.

I still mourn Digit. In my first ten years at Visoke, he was the only poacher-killed gorilla from our study groups. Gentle, trusting, loyal Digit, now only a memory in a mound before my cabin. Digit, a father who was never to see his sole offspring, Mwelu.

A few weeks apart, Simba II and Flossie, an older member of Uncle Bert's harem, each gave birth to female infants. The name Mwelu, given to the offspring of Simba II and Digit, is from an African word meaning "a touch of brightness and light."

Following Digit's death, the summer days passed harmoniously for Group 4, the youngsters cavorting in the massive Hagenia trees while the adults snoozed and sunned under bright blue skies. For months now, because of increased patrols, we had seen no signs of poachers.

But the idyll suddenly collapsed in a disaster with permanent repercussions for the already devastated gorilla population. Poachers shot and killed Uncle Bert and his mate Macho. The adults were coming to the defense of their three-year-old son, Kweli, who had been shot through his shoulder in a capture attempt. Led by Tiger, Kweli escaped with the remnants of his group onto Visoke's slopes.

The recapitulation is grim: Over the entire study period, six of the 80 individual gorillas we regularly worked with had been killed by poachers. But evidence in 64 skeletal specimens collected throughout the Virunga Mountains raised the suspicion that poachers were involved in two-thirds of the total deaths.

Apes Threatened by Outside Pressures

The mountain gorilla is legally protected within Rwanda's Parc National des Volcans, where the Karisoke Research Centre is located. In overpopulated Rwanda, however, more agricultural land and meat for food constantly are sought. The park area has been reduced, and pressures relentlessly continue on the reserve and its wildlife.

Page [ 6 ] of 13