Greatest ape: The battle to save the mountain gorilla

The mountain gorilla is one of man's closest relatives. Tragically, just 700 are left in the wild. Michael McCarthy travels to Rwanda to see how your contribution to 'The Independent' Christmas Appeal could help save this majestic beast from extinction

"He exudes such awesome power that it is obvious, without even forming the thought, that he could take a few steps and pull me apart in a matter of seconds"

We may have lost our sense of wonder a long time ago, having mastered the world and all creation with our presumptuous human cleverness, but in this clearing in the bamboo grove, 8,000 feet up in the mountain rainforest, mine has just burst into life.

It is hard to believe what I am actually looking at: a creature so extraordinary, so exceptional in every way, that I sense the eyes widening in my face. It is a silverback: an adult male mountain gorilla. A wild one, let it be said at once, in his home range on the slopes of the Virunga massif in Rwanda. He is only 20 feet away.

The gorilla is a relative, something deep in my tissues is telling me, a primate like I am, and I feel an instant kinship. Yet at the same time he is something so, so far beyond my kind; he comes out of dark imaginings under the category Beast. He is the size of a car. His chest is as big as a coffee table. His shoulders are wide as a wardrobe; his arms are thick as gateposts.

He exudes such awesome power that it is obvious, without even forming the thought, that he could take a few steps and pull me apart in a matter of seconds. And on his back, on the silvery fur of his great saddle of a back which denotes his status, two gorilla infants the size of teddy bears are blithely playing.

Power combined with gentleness is the most arresting combination, and in this bamboo grove it is all around: 23 mountain gorillas, a very large family group, are resting after their first munch of the day on the bamboo shoots, which are their favourite food, and only available for a relatively short season.

The group is led by the silverback, who has been named Agashya by the guides of Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park: it contains 10 adult females, four juveniles and eight babies, the youngest five days old.

Some of the carrying mothers are cuddling their infants: one holds her small baby in the crook of her thick black arm and rolls over with it, perfectly protected. The youngsters are at play, chasing each other. One is eating a fruit high in a bamboo. When he has finished, he moves to the end of the bamboo stem and collapses it right down on top of me (on purpose, I could swear) before scampering away. I burst out laughing.

Some of the animals are grooming each other, some are lying on their backs scratching, some are just lying on their backs in the cool damp air. It occurs to me that if they were us, they would be idly chatting, and suddenly I realise what I am in the midst of: Blimey they're having a picnic!


It is 40 years since the world's former image of the gorilla as ravening monster began to change. Forty years since we began to understand that the largest of the great apes was in fact the most sociable, living in tightly knit, cohesive family groups where individuals cared for each other with what in human terms we could only call tenderness. (By contrast, orang-utans are largely loners, while chimpanzees' social groups are much more loosely organised).

The person mainly responsible for the shift in perception was the American primatologist Dian Fossey, who in 1967 went to live in the forest of the Virunga massif, a range of six extinct volcanoes that straddles the borders of three central African countries: Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is the habitat of the second scarcest of the four gorilla subspecies, the mountain gorilla, which lives only here and in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of Uganda, and is one of the rarest animals on earth, numbering no more than about 700 in total.

Dian Fossey spent 18 years in the Virungas, studying the mountain gorillas, in conditions of great difficulty. Her camp, Karisoke, was at 10,000ft, and all provisions had to be carried up every fortnight. But she made astonishing discoveries. She was blessed with a feel for individuals who were different (after a lonely and unhappy childhood in California, she had found her mtier in occupational therapy with handicapped children). The patience, sympathy and understanding she found she possessed in working with them served her formidably well when she later turned her attention to the larger characters living in the forest around Karisoke.

Her breakthrough was to learn to identify the animals individually, as she followed them in their family groups. She did this by "noseprints", the markings on the bridge of the nose, above the nostrils, which in every gorilla is different. Once she knew who was who, the whole drama of gorilla family life unfolded before her, with affection, stubbornness, jealousy, courage and caring all on display. And once she witnessed that, she could not help but get involved. In a move that academic zoologists frowned upon, she gave the animals names, so the Group 5 dominant male, for example, became Beethoven and Fossey moved beyond pure science into something like rainforest social work.

Her triumph was that the gorillas responded to her; gradually they became habituated to her presence and let her get closer and closer, until on some days she was virtually part of the group. It led to remarkable findings about their behaviour: their food, vocalisations, posturings, sex lives, occasional clashes with rival groups, illnesses, and even their displays of what could only be called group contentment. Most of all, she established that these relations of ours were wonderful, gentle and dignified animals, as far from the image of King Kong as it was possible to be.

It made her famous. The world had already taken one ape-woman in Africa to its heart, Jane Goodall and her work with wild chimpanzees in Tanzania; it saw another and even more curious one in Dian Fossey, who had become known in Rwanda as Nyiramachabelli the old lady who lives in the forest without a man. Her 1983 book, Gorillas in the Mist, was an international bestseller, subsequently filmed with huge success as a Hollywood movie.

But Nyiramachabelli also brought something much less appealing to international notice: the struggle the gorillas were having to exist alongside humans. Although the forest where they lived had long been designated a national park, it was overrun with hunters, who set numerous snares for small antelopes and other prey, in which gorillas were frequently trapped. A hand caught in a snare often meant a lingering death from gangrene, but there was worse: sometimes the gorillas were directly targeted, for trophies or to catch babies for zoos (and the poachers had to kill the whole group to get a baby, as the adults would defend it to the death).

Their numbers were plunging. Between 1960 and 1983 the mountain gorilla population of the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda dropped from 450 to 250.

To Fossey, these were not simple statistics; many were like family losses. One particular death struck home: on 31 December 1977 a young male to whom she was particularly close and whom she had named Digit (for a deformed finger) was killed defending his group. Poachers put five spears into him, then hacked off his hands and his head.

The death of Digit was perhaps the key event in Fossey's life: it sent the iron into her soul ("From that moment on," she wrote, "I came to live within an insulated part of myself."). It became the symbol of her struggle in the Virungas, and in memory of the slaughtered animal she set up the Digit Fund to provide the money to counter poaching directly. Yet Digit's death also points to the underlying, broader, and more troubling question: can Africa's wondrous wildlife coexist with the overwhelming poverty and desperate needs of so many of its people?


Take Rwanda. Striving hard to rebuild after the terrible Hutu-Tutsi genocide of 1994, it is truly beautiful: green, fertile and mountainous, calling itself the land of a thousand hills. But when you look at those hills, you are struck by the fact that small-scale cultivation goes right to the top of every one. Individual fields and terraces have been carved up to every single summit, no matter how steep, and are growing food.

This is not large-scale agribusiness. This is the people, trying to get enough to eat. You can drive for 50 miles and feel that none of the country is wild any more, that there are no natural habitats left. It is as if the entire landscape were a market garden. Yet it needs to be: this is the most densely populated country in Africa, nearly 10 million souls crowded into what for the continent is a very small space, 60 per cent of them living below the poverty line, and all needing to squeeze out every last bit of nourishment the land can provide.

Under such circumstances, Western views of the natural world and of animal life simply do not hold. If you are dirt-poor, why should you regard with complacency a creature that may compete with you for vital natural resources? Why should you want to preserve an animal that may be your family's only chance of meat? Human need is such an imperative in Africa that, if it comes into conflict with an animal need or a wildlife need, as it increasingly does, it will virtually always prevail. So if you want Africa's wildlife to be preserved, what's the answer?

Dian Fossey's was fortress conservation. Stand and fight. Hit back. Take the battle to the poachers. Which she did, with dramatic results. After the death of Digit she set up anti-poaching patrols of local men, paid for out of her own pocket, and started an aggressive campaign which resulted in lurid stories of her personally kidnapping and even torturing transgressors (none ever proved). Some accounts suggest she had become deranged. She certainly made enemies, in spades, and on 26 December 1985 one of them, still not identified, burst into her cabin at Karisoke and put a machete through her skull.

News of her death went round the world. She was an environmental martyr, and her martyrdom seemed to vindicate her approach. But did it? Was she right?

The difficulty with Fossey's stance was that in fighting the poachers, she was fighting against something more powerful than individuals: she was fighting culture. Many of those setting snares in the national park were Batwa, the indigenous pygmy people of Rwanda. They had lived in the Virunga forests for centuries, and hunted the game. One day, an official draws a line on a map around where they live and says the area is now protected; and suddenly, they're not hunters they're poachers. And yet, the struggle for them to live is as hard as ever. From their point of view, why should they accept the line on the map?

Since about the time of Dian Fossey's death, the recognition has been growing that if wildlife is to be protected in Africa, a cultural shift must be aimed at, and Africans will have to see that protecting it has value for them. Human needs cannot be left out of the equation; they have to be central. In 2003, Jane Goodall said she had come to realise that in Africa: "we can't possibly have any wildlife conservation unless we solve the people problems, too."

The idea has sprung up, therefore, of community-based conservation, where local people are given a stake in their local wildlife (through tourism, for example) or where human needs that conflict with wildlife are met and satisfied in other ways. You want honey from the wild bees in the national park up the road? We'll help you build hives of your own. You want to take wood from the forest for your fire? We'll show you a stove that uses much, much less. You want to take the national park's water? We'll help you to harvest the rainfall that falls on your house.

All these examples come from the work of one of the bodies that has grown directly out of Dian Fossey's legacy: the Gorilla Organization (GO), which was formerly the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Europe. Based in London, the GO seeks actively to conserve all wild gorillas, but believes community initiatives are the way to relieve much of the pressure on them, not only in Rwanda, the Congo and Uganda, but in the future in West Africa, where there are different gorilla populations, and different problems on the way.

Employing local people rather than volunteers from Britain, the Gorilla Organization which is one of the three charities being supported in this year's Independent Christmas appeal shows how to plant trees, teaches sustainable agriculture, tries to resolve conflicts and raise awareness of the value of conservation: it has set up wildlife clubs in 350 schools.

This is all a very different approach from Fossey's hammering of the poachers, but it has attracted the staunch support of one of the people who knew her best, Ian Redmond who is the world's leading campaigner in the struggle to save all four great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos or pygmy chimpanzees and orang-utans) from the threat of extinction.

Redmond is hardly a household name, but he is one of Britain's environmental heroes. He is now chief consultant to the UN-sponsored Great Apes Survival Project, and chair of the Ape Alliance, which brings together 77 different wildlife groups from around the world. This week he is at the international climate conference in Bali, unveiling new UN research which shows that rainforests that harbour apes are also vital for storing carbon.

Yet it is his early career that is most remarkable. A research student with Dian Fossey at Karisoke, Redmond experienced conservation at the sharp end, literally. In a close confrontation, a poacher hurled a spear at him, which Redmond parried with his wrist, thus protecting his heart. It was he who found the headless body of Digit, and he helped Fossey set up the Digit Fund to take the war to the poachers.

Yet the Gorilla Organization, of which he is now a trustee, draws his firm backing. "I particularly like the fact that it has built a culture of conservation in the communities around the Virungas, and is now extending it further," he says. "There has to be an effort to win hearts and minds, and deal with the needs of people." Had the immediate priority to stop the killing not been so urgent, Redmond thinks, Dian Fossey would have recognised that.

On Monday of this week I made the trek to Karisoke to visit her grave, gasping with every step up the steep forested slope in the thin air at 10,000 ft. But it was worth it: it is a haunting place. All the buildings were destroyed by an insurgent raid during the Congo wars 10 years ago, and now the ruins are being reclaimed by the rainforest, but the site itself, a stream-bordered alpine glade of two types of tree, great moss-laden hagenias, and slender, yellow-flowered hypericums, is spectacularly lovely. Fossey is buried alongside a number of her gorillas who were killed by poachers, and next to her beloved Digit. "Nyiramachabelli, " says her tombstone, in English and Kinyarwanda. "You are home where you belong."

What would she think, 22 years on? She would no doubt be delighted to know that the mountain gorillas of the Virungas, at least on the Rwandan side of the mountain massif, seem to have a secure future (the Congo side, because of continuing rebel unrest, is another matter). She might, however, jib at the price that has been paid: gorilla tourism, with nearly 20,000 people a year allowed, in strictly controlled conditions, to climb up into the forest and visit one of seven Virunga family groups that are now habituated to humans. The foreign currency this brings Rwanda means that every effort will be made to keep the animals safe.

Having been one of those fortunate 20,000 this year, I can only rejoice in it. I have never had such an encounter. I have never met such a being as Agashya the silverback, or his females and his children, for that matter. To be with these animals at such close quarters, to witness so intimately their power and their gentleness, had a dreamlike quality, and to watch them disappear one by one back into the forest from the bamboo grove, as Agashya gathered them up and moved them on, was like the fading of a vision.

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