Endangered Species Handbook

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Vanishing Species

Human Tragedy and the Looting of Virunga's Treasures: Page 7

     During the 1980s, the country of Rwanda had adopted Mountain Gorillas as an international symbol of wildlife protection during the 1980s, and when civil war broke out in the spring of 1994, both sides promised to spare them--promises that were not kept.  In April 1994, the Rwandan civil war forced the staff of biologists at the Karisoke Research Center to depart (Perlez 1994).  By early July, most of the wardens of the Rwandan Office of Tourism and Volcanoes National Park fled also, but a few dedicated guards refused to leave the Gorillas and remained.  Soon after, Rwandan soldiers entered the park and ransacked the offices, destroying records and books and throwing computers out windows but, fortunately, sparing the lives of the guards and the Gorillas.  The war claimed at least one Gorilla that year, however, when a male named Mkono was killed by a buried land mine (Tuxill 1997).
     The staff of Volcanoes National Park was devastated by the war. Two-thirds of Rwanda's park employees died or remained in exile after the war ended, and 48 of 50 vehicles were destroyed (Salopek 1995).  When surviving employees returned, many of them having been rescued from the masses of people living in refugee camps, with the help of United Nations personnel, they were delighted to see the Mountain Gorillas again.  Nshogoza, a park employee who has spent 18 of his 44 years at Karisoke and has known generations of Gorillas, told a National Geographic writer, "When I was a boy, I heard that gorillas were men who were very bad and who went to live in the forest.  But the gorillas are better than us.  They are peaceful.  They have no tribes.  When they fight, it is for a good reason.  We cut one another with machetes for zero" (Salopek 1995).  To honor these guards, the park received the $50,000 J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Award in May 1996, the money to be managed by the International Gorilla Conservation Program.  Some was spent detecting and defusing more than 75 mines and booby traps left after the war, and other funds restored tourism in the park.
     The Mountain Gorillas of Virunga National Park had been safe for a decade, but in 1995, Rwandan refugees, probably members of the routed army, entered their misty, forest home.  In August and September 1995, three Gorillas--two silverbacks and one female--were found shot to death at point-blank range.  One of these, named Marcel by the park scientists, was the most popular of Virunga's Gorillas, totally tame and gentle.  He was so habituated to tourists that they could approach within a few feet of him, and hundreds of films and photos had been taken of him over the years.  The bodies of Marcel and his mate were found sprawled out on the ground, full of bullet holes.  "If someone comes in with a gun, the gorillas won't move out of the way," said Popol Verhoestraete, a field officer for the conservation program (Lang 1995).  The killers left the bodies intact.  These two Gorillas died trying to save their baby from poachers, who allegedly planned to sell him to a zoo.  The park guards finally located this young Gorilla and seized him from the poachers, who were arrested.  They carried the baby, who had become terrified and disoriented, in a small cage back to the family group.  Not knowing if the frightened young Gorilla could survive without his parents, they released him, prepared to recapture him if things did not go well.  After hesitating, he heard the sounds of his family and ran to join them.  The leaderless and traumatized family group moved off into the forest.

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