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Gorillas In Their Midst

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is it possible to protect Rwanda’s mountain gorillas while also helping some of its poorest citizens?

BISATE, RWANDA—One day in June, clouds hid the summit of Mt. Bisoke, a dormant volcano spanning the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. On the Rwandan side, the fog cleared over the mosses and trees of the Virunga forest, which blanket the mountain’s upper reaches before stopping abruptly at a stone wall. Undulating, asymmetric patches of potato and sorghum begin immediately on the other side and cover every available inch of land.

Not far below the wall sits a rainwater collector, a stone cylinder perhaps eight feet high and twice as wide. Mothers in colorful wraps and children in dusty rags filled plastic jerry cans with water from a tap, sometimes plugging the containers with potatoes. Down a bumpy road, there’s a renovated clinic with water collecting and sanitation facilities including a covered pit reserved for decomposing the many human placentas birthed there. A nearby school boasts new outhouses and water collection tanks. This is Bisate town.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, women and children often hike miles to reach wells and families cope with a near-total absence of medical care. Even in remote areas, clinics and boreholes built by foreign groups with foreign money aim to relieve some of the most debilitating burdens of poverty. The improvements in Bisate are unusual because they are the result of work by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI), an organization originally devoted to saving the endangered mountain gorillas in the forest, not assisting depressed villagers.

With its temperate mountain climate and fertile soil, the Virunga forest fringe is one of the more densely populated areas of Rwanda, which is the most densely populated country on the continent. The large families here—it is common for women to have seven or more kids—aggravate pressure on limited land. And for most people, farming is the only way to survive.

Less than 15 years after ‘Rwanda’ became a synonym for hell, tourism has joined coffee and tea production as one of the country’s major industries, bringing in $42.3 million in 2007, including $7 million for gorilla permits.

However, the mountain gorillas living in the forest distinguish this area from countless other rural regions. Attracting tourists and money to Rwanda, they are more valued—by the government, by NGOs, by the entire world—than the peasants living nearby. Indeed, efforts to preserve these surprisingly delicate animals force farmers into competition against them.

The Virunga forest covers the triple frontier of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, extending across a string of volcanoes on the western side of the Great Rift Valley. Famed for its biodiversity, the forest is thick with bamboo and hardwoods, indigenous birds, golden monkeys, and duiker, a small woodland antelope. The Virunga Forest is also home to about half the world’s 700-odd mountain gorillas (subspecies: Gorilla beringei beringei). The gorillas’ only other habitat is Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a few miles north.

Playful, large, hominid, and rare, mountain gorillas were seemingly made to be tourist attractions. Then Dian Fossey studied them, and her book Gorillas in the Mist (which later served as the basis for a hit movie) almost single-handedly turned mountain gorillas into one of the world’s most celebrated wildlife populations.

Today, Rwanda charges tourists $500 an hour to watch gorillas in the forest, and plenty of tourists are willing to pay the fee. “There are very few species out there that are going to get the kind of response from the international community that the mountain gorillas do,” said Craig Sholley of the African Wildlife Foundation. “People specifically go to Rwanda or Uganda to see mountain gorillas.”

Male Western Lowland Gorillas, the kind commonly found in zoos, have short hair and brows to set a wineglass on below their massive sloping foreheads. To stay warm at high altitudes, their mountain counterparts have coats of long hair. As males reach adulthood, the fur on their backs pales to gray. Watching a 450-pound silverback eat bamboo and hold court over his family is such an extraordinary—many say moving—experience that it’s only a slight exaggeration to say Rwanda is staking the national economy on it.

Less than 15 years after “Rwanda” became a synonym for hell, tourism has joined coffee and tea production as one of the country’s major industries, bringing in $42.3 million in 2007, including $7 million for gorilla permits. A gorilla appears on Rwanda’s largest banknote, the pink 5,000-Franc bill, which is worth almost $10. But the apes carry an even greater responsibility on their hairy shoulders: they have effectively become national mascots.


Rwanda’s boosters like to talk about the country’s progression into an African Singapore, a prosperous police state in a dangerous neighborhood. Small, crowded, landlocked, and low on resources, Rwanda’s singular achievement is restoring law and stability after the 1994 genocide. Billboards in the capital city of Kigali tout the construction of gated communities and slick office blocks. Destitute villages are tidier than their counterparts in neighboring countries. Still, nobody would confuse Rwanda with Singapore.

A 2003 census found that the Virunga mountain gorilla population had increased by about 17 percent since 1989 to 380, despite years of war and genocide. (That number doesn’t include the roughly equal number of gorillas living in Uganda’s Bwindi forest.) The risk of deliberate gorilla poaching is far lower in Rwanda than it is in Congo, the war-torn country on the other side of the forest where several recent gorilla slayings have received global media coverage.

In northwest Rwanda, the forest is like a supermarket, stocked with the firewood, water, meat, and bamboo (a building material) that people need. But locals are forbidden to even enter the forest, partly to prevent the spread of disease to the gorillas. After traumas such as infanticide and snares, respiratory infection is the second most common killer of mountain gorillas. To guard against disease transmission, tourists must keep more than 22 feet away from the gorillas, though the apes don’t always follow the rules. Humans and gorillas have very similar DNA, but when the latter contract human illnesses they are not always able to fend them off as well.


“There are four gorillas who are coughing,” trackers radioed down to Dr. Jean-Felix Kinani, a Congo-born veterinarian with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP), this past May. They had been watching the Susa Group, a gaggle of about 40 tourist-acclimated gorillas. One Susa gorilla, an infant, had appeared to recover from a runny nose before her condition worsened and MGVP veterinarians decided she needed antibiotics.

“The baby lay limply in [the mother’s] arms, eyes closed, mouth open, wheezing,” Kinani’s colleague Dr. Lucy Spelman wrote. To reach the child, the mother had to be tranquilized. “The dart landed in Ururabo’s left shoulder. She screamed, pulled it out, threw it to the ground and walked away from us up into the bamboo. Igisha [a silverback, probably the infant’s father] charged out of the bamboo thicket, mouth open, canines showing…the trackers raised their sticks and yelled at Igisha. It worked—he turned away instantly.”

Antibiotics saved the baby. “We won this time,” said MGVP director Dr. Michael Cranfield, an American, but that doesn’t mean antibiotics are always the answer; the drugs can lose their effectiveness, and the darts can frighten the animals.

While the early conservationists considered human beings an obstacle to their work—Fossey, who was murdered in 1985, hated gorilla tourism, and reportedly groused that Rwanda had “too many” people—green activists are now trying to combine their environmental endeavors with efforts to boost living standards among the Rwandan poor. Still, DFGFI economist Glenn Bush admitted, “We’ve yet to reconcile whether development projects have conservation benefits.”

Gorilla conservation involves plotting the movements of human and animal populations, the way generals in old movies pushed model armies across a battlefield map, except the idea is to keep most humans and gorillas apart. Trackers have the most contact with the gorillas and they come from poor communities on the forest edge where infections are common. To prevent cross-species infection, said Cranfield, the MGVP offers trackers medical care and preventative drugs. “Some [trackers] have tumors and are out of our realm of treating,” he added. Meanwhile, patrols sponsored by the DFGFI and the government tourism agency still aim to keep people out of the forest, where hunters and woodsmen set snares and might defecate and expose gorillas to additional microscopic hazards. Far fewer gorillas die from parasites than from respiratory infections.

Poor Rwandans bear the costs of conservation, while the national tourism industry reaps the benefits.

“At the end of the day, the local people are the biggest threat to conservation,” said Bush, which is why he believes that the most important components of conservation are patrolling the park for intruders and monitoring the health of gorillas. “Protecting the park is not particularly beneficial for the local people who depend on the park.” Rwanda sets aside a small percentage of gorilla permit revenues for projects benefiting edge communities, but far more money goes to the animals. Thus, poor Rwandans bear the costs of conservation, while the national tourism industry reaps the benefits.

The DFGFI’s efforts, such as renovating the Bisate clinic, help offset some of the local costs. But the relationship between development and conservation, Bush said, remains “wonderfully murky.” Since environmentalism tends to be a higher priority in wealthy countries than in poor countries, the assumption is that wealthier people care more about keeping forests clean and diverse species alive. But Bush’s research in Uganda (he’s conducting similar studies in Rwanda) suggests that while the poorest people are most dependent on forest resources, as people grow wealthier they are more destructive and able to “exploit the forest more effectively.” In northwest Rwanda, wealth might mean a cinderblock house instead of a mud hut, some source of cash income, and a few cows in addition to chickens.

Renovating the Bisate clinic generates goodwill, which boosts local support for conservation work. But the DFGFI is spending money to create wealth that could ultimately damage the environment. Where should the DFGFI draw the line? “These communities are so poor that they need any type of assistance they can possibly get,” Bush said.

Like the Fossey group’s Ecosystem Health program, the MGVP’s “one health” approach includes people and animals. “It’s becoming the norm,” said Laura Clauson, who spent several years working for Wyman Worldwide Health Partners, an NGO. Wyman had collaborated with the DFGFI on the Bisate clinic, but they eventually split; Wyman then teamed up with the MGVP on a clinic in Shingiro. After only a few months they had made some improvements at the Shingiro clinic, which consists of a few rooms around a small courtyard. During my visit late last spring, examination and patient rooms were under renovation.

Before we went to the clinic, Clauson supervised the loading of a Daihatsu truck with mattresses, shelves, syringes, antibiotics and antiparasitics, iodine, an examination table, and big bags of cement. A few workers climbed over the hill of supplies and lashed everything down with ropes cut from worn tires. Soon she expected another group to set up a clinic for HIV/AIDS testing and counseling, though recent tests hadn’t turned up anyone with HIV or AIDS in the area; since my visit a few tests have apparently turned up positive. “This whole continent has gone crazy over HIV,” Clauson said. However, more common concerns in Shingiro are diarrhea, parasites, domestic violence, skin diseases, and toddlers falling on stoves—a familiar list in rural Africa. The Shingiro clinic doesn’t have a doctor for the 30,000 people in its coverage area. By comparison, a team of veterinarians attended the sick gorilla.

In an unrenovated clinic room the size of a Manhattan studio apartment, women lay in seven beds as babies crawled over them and relatives wandered in and out. Olive Nikuze wore a red head wrap and an expression of sublime indifference. As she answered questions, a baby girl crawled on top of her. Nikuze had come to the clinic with chest pains and dizziness. She didn’t think she was pregnant again; at 23, she already had two children and had suffered two miscarriages.

On her land near the forest, Nikuze raises potatoes and pyrethrum, a flower that can be dried into an insecticide. In a good year she grows two tons of potatoes and sells the ones she doesn’t need for about 6 cents a pound; selling half her yield would net Nikuze $118. “Every season the buffalo come and damage the crops,” Nikuze said through a translator. She knew the improvements to the clinic owed to the nearby presence of gorillas that were “important to the country.” Once she had seen a gorilla knuckle-walk out of the forest. But she also wanted to see better roads and water facilities. “You can’t touch animals,” she said. “You can’t touch anything in the park even if you need it.”

Other conservation efforts try to spur entrepreneurship so people will be less reliant on the forest. Micro-entrepreneurship programs have proliferated around Africa, but the most ambitious examples, the ones trying to reach developed-world consumers, struggle with distribution. A group might teach widowed AIDS patients to stitch attractive, durable handbags, but where can they be sold? Tourist areas are already saturated with gift stalls. Big retailers such as Wal-Mart can’t be bothered to import the 500 (or 5,000) necklaces a collective might bead in a month. Selling through online auction giant eBay requires regular mail service and a decent Internet connection, neither of which are available in northern Rwanda. Even if there were vast unmet demand for African souvenirs, it would be cheaper to make them in China. Indeed, much of the “traditional” cloth found in Africa already comes from China.

In Rwanda, the International Gorilla Conservation Program is working with locals to boost honey production. Unfortunately, I didn’t detect much demand for Rwandan honey. Sholley, whose African Wildlife Foundation helps fund the IGCP, is more optimistic about the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, an upmarket eco-lodge catering to gorilla tourists. Even effective poverty alleviation programs take decades to show real results. If these improvements seem minor, it is important to remember how much worse it could be.


Jean “Bosco” Bizumuremyi, a porter since his teens, has risen to become the DFGFI’s field operations coordinator. During the 1994 genocide, he sought refuge in Congo, but while walking home he was attacked by militants who slashed his scalp and knocked out his front teeth (which are still missing). “My family fled, my friends escaped,” he recalled. “I was almost dead.” The bandits began squabbling over money they found in his pocket, and a passing aid worker rescued him. After recuperating he returned to Bisate and found scores of snares set in the vicinity of the research center that Fossey founded.

During the 1980s, pastoralists grazed cattle in the forest and there were more poachers. Since then, Bosco said, there’s been a shift in how ordinary Rwandans perceive the Virunga. He estimates that 20 percent of people in the area still trespass in the forest, but he thinks that the patrols are an effective deterrent and that most people respect the gorillas’ need for protection.

‘These communities are so poor that they need any type of assistance they can possibly get.’

The showcase for Rwanda’s gorilla infatuation is Kwita Izina, the biggest event on the country’s social calendar. During this annual June ceremony, dignitaries, and donors name the gorillas born in Rwanda during the last year, a concept with roots in Rwandan tradition. The event is held on a field against a backdrop of the Virunga’s volcanoes.

Kwita Izina is a spectacle of dances and long speeches. Since the gorillas can’t participate, about 20 people dress in gorilla suits to receive the rite. This year more than 20 gorillas were named as Rwandan elites watched the festivities from a party tent planted on the field. Among the honorees was the baby whose life the veterinarians had saved with the antibiotic dart. She was named Imena, which means “elite” in Kinyarwanda. White visitors were quickly escorted under the tent, where they could refresh themselves with snacks and bottled water. Behind the stage, a few thousand locals were roped off, watching the proceedings somberly as they baked in the equatorial sun.

Alex Halperin is a writer living in New York City. His reporting in Rwanda was made possible by a grant from the Phillips Foundation.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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