Endangered Species Handbook

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Vanishing Species

Human Tragedy and the Looting of Virunga's Treasures: Page 8

     Illegal snares have been threatening wildlife in these parks for generations.  In the 1960s, Schaller saw two Gorillas in a group of 11 that had each lost one of their hands to snares (Schaller 1995).  In Virunga National Park in mid-1995, a young male Gorilla was seen with a wire snare wrapped tightly around his foot, cutting off circulation, which threatened his life with septicemia (Salopek 1995).  Just as the guards were preparing to capture him to remove the snare, they saw a huge male silverback watching over him.  They waited until the right moment and darted the young Gorilla with a tranquilizer, taking him to a local veterinarian, who saved the Gorilla’s foot (Salopek 1995). 
     In another snare incident in 1995, a very young female Gorilla was caught by the wrist in a snare set by Rwandans who entered Virunga to trap forest antelope.  A film by Bruce Davidson, "Mountain Gorilla," shown on the “National Geographic Explorer" television series (September 14, 1996), chronicled the trauma of this tiny Gorilla, who struggled in vain to free herself, crying out and screaming in fear and pain.  The park rangers thought that she might have been in the snare, which was tied to a tree, at least 24 hours before they discovered her.  She was surrounded by her family, but her relatives could not bite through the snare because it was made of strong nylon cord from food sacks donated to the refugees.  The silverback male, Ndingutse, tried again and again to free the baby, and her mother held her to comfort her screams, but there was nothing they could do to release her.  Finally, the park guards, who had been standing nearby, were able to approach when Ndingutse moved away for a moment, and cut the cord.  She escaped, but faced the threat of becoming snared again, and the cord remained around her wrist, a threat to her circulation as she grew.
     The snares are usually attached to bamboo poles, bent over to spring when set off.  Davidson filmed Ndingutse's brother, a 7-year old named Luwawa, in an extremely intelligent and protective reaction to a snare he encountered.   When Luwawa saw the snare, he circled it, obviously aware of what it was.  Waiting for the rest of his family to arrive and witness the act, he reached over and snapped the pole like a twig, avoiding the noose and disarming it.  Against guns, he had no defense, however.  Soon after, Luwawa was found shot dead on the slopes of Virunga National Park.  His brother Salama had been killed months earlier.  Only his bones and skull, picked clean of meat, remained when park rangers found him.  The slaughter of these silverbacks traumatized the five to 10 females in their groups and left the babies and young without a strong male to protect them.  They became shy and confused, hiding from humans, and even other Gorillas.  In 1996, another two Mountain Gorillas were killed, bringing the toll for the previous 17 months to 10, causing havoc and psychological trauma in the families left behind and irreparable genetic damage to these highly endangered animals.  In neighboring Uganda, more of these gentle Gorillas died--four adults in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest were speared to death by poachers in 1995 (Salopek 1995). The expulsion of farmers to enlarge the park for Gorillas caused great resentment, and perhaps precipitated this carnage.  Tourists who came to see the Mountain Gorillas in this new Bwindi National Park in March 1999 met disaster when Hutu rebels ambushed and killed eight people in one group.  This was thought to be the end of Mountain Gorilla tourism in Uganda, but with increased protection of tourists, they are gradually returning. Poaching declined after the deaths of Gorillas and tourists, and by 2000, the Mountain Gorillas in the Virunga Mountains in both parks totaled 358 (Fisher 2001).  Tourists coming to Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park are still in some danger when not in groups guarded by soldiers, however (Fisher 2001).

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