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Saving Africa's gorillas: as humans fight over land and resources, mountain gorillas are caught in the middle.


In January, wildlife officials reported that, during the preceding 18 months, 10 mountain gorillas had been born in Africa's Virunga National Park. That is great news for the endangered species. While all gorillas are under threat--between 175,000 and 225,000 exist worldwide--mountain gorillas number slightly more than 720.

Just over half of those live in the Virunga Mountains, on the borders of three developing countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda. Each of these nations faces huge challenges caused by decades of civil war and conflict. Years of bloodshed have also left millions of Congolese people homeless and hungry. The survival of even that many mountain gorillas amid such chaos is almost a miracle. But the animals are not out of the woods yet.

Threats to Survival

Virunga National Park, an area of wilderness the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, was established in 1925 as Africa's first national park. In 1979, it was classified as a United Nations World Heritage Site.

Despite this international protection, local governments have had a tough time controlling the mountainous region. Armed rebels hide out in the park's dense forests. The gorillas are endangered by cross fire, grenades, and other acts of warfare. In 2007, an entire family of gorillas was purposely slaughtered by assailants.

Undaunted, many Africans are working to keep the mountain gorillas safe and increase their numbers.


Warfare isn't the only danger. Poachers trap and kill mountain gorillas to sell their heads and hands as trophies. They also sell babies to zoos--even though mountain gorillas do not survive in captivity.

The largest threat of all to these gorillas is the destruction of their natural habitat. In Rwanda, a small, but crowded country, 90 percent of the people are farmers. Many of them illegally cut down trees to create more farmland. Then they turn the wood into charcoal, a slow-burning fuel that is used to cook food or heat homes.


As desperate humans slash and burn the forests, they are consuming the resources of the gorillas, which must eat up to 75 pounds of vegetation a day to survive.

Seeking Solutions

Rwanda's President, Paul Kagame, hopes to move his country toward an information-based economy, with more people working on computers and fewer cutting down trees. Meanwhile, some Rwandans are using biogas as an alternative fuel. Tourism is also a source of income to the nations that border the Virunga Mountains.

Grace Karemera, 13, sees the fate of her fellow Rwandans intertwined with that of the mountain gorillas. "The survival of these gorillas depends on the prosperity of Rwanda," Grace told JS. The gorillas, in turn, help Rwanda flourish. "They play a big role in Rwanda's tourism industry," she added. "They give employment opportunities to the local people. Thousands come from around the world to see these beautiful animals, opening Rwanda to the global community."


Recognizing the importance of the gorillas, more than 1,000 Congolese soldiers withdrew from Virunga National Park last September. While Congolese and Rwandan rebels continue to occupy parts of the park, they have been known to take tourists to visit the gorillas.

"My hope for the gorillas is that their numbers increase and that their habitat isn't completely destroyed," Grace said. "I hope Rwanda develops at a faster rate, and I hope the peace and security that we are enjoying now remains forever."

Words to know

* biogas [n]: short for biological gas; a mix of methane and carbon dioxide [[C0.sub.2]], produced by the decomposition of organic wastes that is used for fuel.

* habitat [n]: an area or an environment in which a plant or an animal naturally lives and thrives.

* poacher [n]: one who kills wild animals or takes them illegally.


People, places, & environments

All over the world, human activity threatens the natural life of the planet. Many students will find the story o{ the mountain gorillas a compelling example of this principle.

* Backstory

The mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park came to the attention of most of the world through the work of Dian Fossey, by way of her book Gorillas in the Mist (1983), and the 1988 biopic based on it starring Sigourney Weaver. Beginning in 1966, Fossey, an American zoologist, lived with the gorillas for months at a time, adding immensely to our understanding of their behavior. A fierce opponent of poachers, Fossey did not endear herself to some local people who, then as now, relied on illegal activities in the forest for their marginal existence. Her murder in Rwanda in 1985 has never been solved.

* Review

What conditions threaten the mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park? (war, cross fire between rebels and soldiers, poachers, destruction of natural habitat)

* Empathy and Argument

Imagine that you are living at the edge of the Virunga National Park. Your family makes next to nothing--and the little that comes in is from illegal charcoal production. How would you convince your family that you should be preserving the gorillas' habitat? Or would you argue that the family's survival was more important?


* Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund [includes videos]:

* Mountain Gorilla Population in Congo Increases [audio]: /templates/story/story. php?storyld=100118056

* Virunga National Park: /globalconservation/Africa /drcongo/37108495
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Environment
Author:Waugh, Rachel
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Mar 15, 2009
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