Endangered Species Handbook

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Vanishing Species

Human Tragedy and the Looting of Virunga's Treasures: Page 5

     Although Gorillas share more than 98 percent of human genes, making them, along with the two species of chimpanzees, our closest relatives, until the 1960s, they remained mysterious, threatening creatures in the view of the public, depicted as monsters in movies.  During the 19th century, explorers and hunters killed them as ferocious symbols of savagery.  The work of American biologists Dr. George Schaller and, later, Dian Fossey, who entered the forests of the Mountain Gorillas as observers and researchers, changed this image forever.  Films and books of the National Geographic Society and others revealed the gentleness and intelligence of these magnificent primates to people around the world, and gradually, conservation programs began to replace trophy hunting. 
 
     Schaller, who began his research in the 1960s in Virunga National Park, wrote about these primates in The Mountain Gorilla, published in 1963 by the University of Chicago Press, and a popular version, The Year of the Gorilla, in 1964.  He provided the first scientific observations of these remarkable animals and recalled his encounters with them in a 1995 National Geographic article:
 
I approached them with empathy and respect, wanting nothing from them but peace and proximity.  And they accepted my presence with an astounding generosity of spirit.  The recent decades have been a turning point, indeed a revolution, in our relationship with animals.  Humans have begun to overcome cross-species barriers, achieving intimacy with humpback whales, chimpanzees, lions, mountain sheep, wolves.  The gorillas of popular image were a fantasy . . . No one who looks into a gorilla's eyes--intelligent, gentle, vulnerable--can remain unchanged, for the gap between ape and human vanishes; we know that the gorilla still lives within us.  Do gorillas also recognize this ancient connection? (Schaller 1995).
 
     In the 1960s, Virunga National Park sheltered the largest population of Mountain Gorillas, numbering some 450.  They declined to 275 by the 1970s, and to 250 by 1981, a result of poaching.  The Mountain Gorilla Project, begun in 1978 by Schaller and a consortium of conservation organizations, including the New York Zoological Society and the African Wildlife Foundation, sought to stop the Gorilla's decline toward extinction.  Funding went toward anti-poaching programs, education of local people, and ecotours (Schaller 1995).  With non-threatening visitors to the park, many Gorillas grew tame.  They were given names by park rangers and scientists and became familiar to tourists who came from around the world to see them.  The conservation program and ecotourism succeeded in nearly eliminating poaching, and Virunga's Gorillas increased to 320 by the late 1980s (Schaller 1995).  The Gorilla Project also operated in Uganda, where the government ejected 2,000 farmers from 3,500 acres, offering to compensate them with 10 percent of the revenue from tourists who come to see the gorillas (Salopek 1995). 


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