email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Mountain Gorillas of Africa
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Ironically, Kay and I also had to terminate our project in 1960 because of war. The Belgian Congo, now Zaire, gained independence that year, and with it came years of unrest. And in Rwanda, a Belgian protectorate until 1962, the Hutu tribe waged a civil war against the ruling Tutsi. Many Tutsi fled the country, living in exile until they invaded their former homeland in 1990. The renewed war climaxed in the carnage of April 1994; soon after, the Rwandan Patriotic Front achieved victory and formed a new government.

The mountain gorillas have a long past but only a century of history, much of it turbulent. This history began in 1902 when a German officer, Capt. Oscar von Beringe, first encountered the apes—and shot two. In the next quarter century, collectors and hunters captured or killed more than 50 gorillas in the Virunga region. Carl Akeley of the American Museum of Natural History shot five gorillas in 1921, but he was so impressed with the apes that he prompted the Belgian government to establish Africa's first national park, Albert National Park, for them in 1925.

Belgian protection gave the gorillas relative peace until the turmoil in 1960, when the Belgian park staff fled. Civil war, insurrection, and the division of Albert Park into Zairean and Rwandan sectors demoralized the guard force. Cattle invaded the fragile uplands, and poachers roamed the forests. Their wire snares cut deep into the gorillas' flesh, but some managed to tear free. In one group of 11 gorillas two animals had only one hand each; another's hand was deformed. Gorilla hands and heads were sold as souvenirs to tourists. And the gorillas lost much forest. In 1958 the Belgians in Rwanda turned over 27 square miles of gorilla habitat to farmers, and in 1968 another 38 square miles, or 40 percent of the remaining forest, was given to a European-sponsored agricultural scheme. It was a desolate time, to which the gorillas could be only mute and passive witnesses.

Gorilla numbers plummeted. In 1960 I estimated about 450 in the Virunga region. Censuses during the 1970s showed around 275, and by 1981 there were only 250. During this critical time Dian Fossey, assisted for varying periods by Craig Sholley, David Watts, Kelly Stewart, Ian Redmond, Alexander Harcourt, and others, was at Karisoke. Dian harassed poachers with obsessive zeal. And she made the world aware of the gorilla's plight. Her heroic vigil helped the apes endure. However, her unyielding confrontational approach with local people, one that she termed "expedient action," ultimately cannot save wildlife. Conservation depends on the goodwill of the local population.

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