Mountain Gorilla Survival Appeal
Saving Congo's mountain gorillas
Guardian Newspaper, Monday 8 March 2010 21.00 GMT
A baby gorilla claps
her palms and leaps to the top of a wooden climbing frame. Another
grips the hands of her keeper and swings head over heels with
childlike exuberance. The pair play in long grass in the shade of
bamboo, fig and wild banana trees. This is Ndeze and Ndakasi,
symbols of hope in the struggle to save the imperilled mountain
gorillas of eastern Africa. The pair, orphaned in massacres that
shocked the world in 2007, are settling into a new home and could
soon be part of a new family.
under way to bring two adult gorillas from Rwanda to become their
adoptive parents, with a view to returning the babies to the wild.
a warden at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of
Congo, said: "An adult male and female were sent to Rwanda during
the instability here. We could bring them back and drop them all in
a big area to form a family."
The return of the
gorillas from Rwanda depends on the completion of the Senkwekwe
Centre, a specially designed sanctuary for Ndeze and Ndakasi in a
lush forest habitat in Virunga park. The pair, each two and a half
years old, moved there last December from a makeshift shelter in the
city of Goma.
The babies lost their
parents in a spate of killings that cost the lives of 10 gorillas in
2007. Ndeze was found, at two months old, clinging to her
slaughtered mother's breast. Photographs of her dead father, a
majestic silverback called Senkwekwe, being carried on a bamboo
trellis caused international revulsion.
The fragility of life
in Congo's eastern forests was brutally underlined last month when
two-year-old Nsekanabo, a nephew of Ndeze, died after being caught
in a snare laid by poachers. The head of local conservation efforts
described the loss as "a catastrophic setback".
The Guardian joined
Mburanumwe to watch the baby gorillas at play in their 40x40m walled
enclosure from a newly completed viewing platform. "They were found
as little babies and taken to Goma," Mburanumwe said. "We put them
in a sanctuary there. Doctors gave them milk and medicines. But in
Goma there is much noise and dust, and the air is not good. The
place was not as safe as here. In Goma there was no food, but here
we have people collecting leaves and bringing them daily, so it's
easy for them to grow. The babies are very happy now and playing
every day. It's like the habitat where they were born."
The infants sleep in
the same room as their carers at the centre, which was built with
support from donors including the Murry Foundation in Britain. It is
situated down a forest track next to the park headquarters in
Rumangabo, north of Goma.
highlight the threat to great apes caused by disease, habitat loss,
poaching and war. A recent report showed that, of the world's 634
primate species, 48% are classified as threatened with extinction on
the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's "red list".
The mountain gorilla is critically endangered. There are 720 left in
the wild in Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, but this represents an
increase from 650 five years ago. "The gorillas are doing much
better now than 14 months ago," said Samantha Newport, spokeswoman
for Virunga park, adding that rangers had regained control of the
gorilla sector from armed rebels in 2008.
Last year the park
began offering gorilla tracking to foreign holidaymakers, attracting
about 100 a month from countries including Australia, America,
Brazil, Britain, Italy, South Africa and Spain. Visitors pay to walk
through the forests with a professional tracker and observe the
primates in their natural habitat.
Local activists hope
that a period of relative political and military stability in
eastern Congo could turn it into an unlikely tourist destination,
rivalling the more established tracking tours in neighbouring Rwanda
Henry Cirhuza, DRC
programme manager of the
Gorilla Organisation, a UK charity, said: "It's easier to track
gorillas here in the DRC. In Rwanda and Uganda you need to book six
months before, whereas here you can book today and go tomorrow. It
costs $400 here instead of $500 there.
"You can spend one
hour tracking here, whereas in Uganda it can take all day. And
tourism is the best way to bring money to the population here."
But while there are
tentative signs of declining violence in Africa's oldest national
park, grave challenges remain. Poachers still roam here. Several
armed groups still live, cook and train in the park. As the death of
Nsekanabo last month demonstrated, gorillas still lose their hands,
or their lives, in snares intended to catch other animals.
The latest and
biggest danger to the gorillas comes from deforestation caused by
the relentless demand for charcoal, on which local people are highly
dependent for fuel to boil water and cook food.
Cirhuza said: "All
the people in this town use charcoal and it's a big threat to the
gorillas because of loss of habitat. The gorillas are on a high
plane in the mountains. In one or two years they will be reached by
those who take charcoal. This park was created for the gorillas in
1925. If we lose the gorillas, there is no park."
Park officials are
attempting to combat the trade by distributing kits to local
communities to manufacture biomass briquettes from plant waste as a
cheaper alternative to charcoal.
Last year it promoted
the scheme in an extraordinary
driving around Goma with six people wearing gorilla costumes
imported from Britain.
"Charcoal is the number-one threat to the survival of the park. It's
very difficult to fight because we've living in one of the most
densely populated and impoverished parts of Africa. Law enforcement
is not enough; you have to provide alternatives such as the