A new era in gorilla conservation began in 1978 when Amy Vedder and Bill Weber of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York arrived to establish gorilla tourism and an education program for the Rwandans. The following year their work was incorporated into the Mountain Gorilla Project, financed by an international consortium of conservation organizations. This integrated program of antipoaching, tourism, and education, all in cooperation with a receptive Rwandan government, had a marked impact on local attitudes.
A well-trained guard force maintained the national park. The education program created widespread awareness not just of the gorillas but also of the need to protect forests. The Virungas in Rwanda represent less than half of one percent of the country's land area but 10 percent of its water catchment. Without the forests to store water, streams would disappear during the dry season and deprive the dense human population of water. Four gorilla groups were soon habituated to tourists' viewing them at close range. Fees for tourists were high, yet so enthralled were visitors that gorilla viewing became at one time Rwanda's third largest earner of foreign exchange. Similar programs were later initiated on the Zaire and Uganda sides of the volcanoes.
The Mountain Gorilla Project also had an unforeseen impact. The people of Rwanda became proud of their apes. The gorillas became part of Rwanda's identity in the world, a part of the nation's vision of itself.
The 1980s were a golden time for the 30 or so gorilla groups on the Virunga volcanoes, and the population grew again, to about 320. The innovative program initiated by Amy Vedder and Bill Weber had become a classic story of conservation success, one that has been emulated in its approach many times.
Then the most recent civil war violated the gorillas' peaceful existence once again. Yet in spite of the turmoil, with soldiers of both factions traversing the forests, the gorillas have not been decimated. Indeed the Rwandan Patriotic Front expressed public concern for the gorillas' safety even while it was fighting. The new prime minister, Faustin Twagiramungu, has affirmed his country's commitment to the apes. Given the urgent and crushing social needs of Rwanda, this declaration is remarkable. For one species to fight for the survival of another, even in times of stress, is something new in evolution. In this, more than all our technology, lies our claim to being human.