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VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, Rwanda — A baby gorilla’s face peeks through the bamboo canopy, sending dried leaves fluttering down to the sunlight-speckled forest floor. The 3-month-old, still unsteady on her climbing legs, narrows her eyes in concentration and reaches slowly for a nearby branch. In one clumsy slip, she tumbles upside down and slides head first down the bamboo pole like an inverted firefighter.
More agile on the ground, the infant mountain gorilla waddles toward her father, who is lazily stretched out on his giant round belly in a patch of ferns. Mr. Lucky, as the 500-pound silverback is called by the park rangers, gently pulls the baby in for a quick snuggle before she wriggles out of his arms to munch on a vine.
A few yards away, a group of tourists giggle quietly, amused by the familiarity of the humanlike father-daughter interaction. These Americans and Europeans have traveled to Rwanda to visit the endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. The tourism dollars they provide are funding local conservation efforts, which may have saved the mountain gorilla from extinction — at least for now.
When American primatologist Dian Fossey was mysteriously murdered in her research camp in Rwanda in 1985, the global mountain gorilla population was estimated at 540. Their survival prospects were grim.
All mountain gorillas live in only two high-altitude forests in equatorial Africa, in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda and in the Virunga Massif, a range of extinct volcanoes that straddles the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
For decades, political instability and armed conflict in the region made law enforcement difficult. Poachers captured wild baby gorillas, often killing their mothers and fathers in the process, and sold them to foreign zoos and wildlife collectors. Local residents carved into the forests for farmland and firewood, shrinking the range of animals, which travel several miles a day in search of food.
Many scientists expected mountain gorillas to be extinct by the end of the 20th century. But thanks to anti-poaching patrols, habitat conservation and economic development of surrounding communities — all funded by tourism revenue — mountain gorillas have survived, although they are still critically endangered.
Today they number about 880 in the wild. None have survived in captivity.
Female mountain gorillas give birth roughly every four years, producing an average of four offspring in their lifetimes. With a low birth rate and a 26 percent infant mortality rate, population recovery is a long, slow process.
But mountain gorillas are the only great ape population that is increasing. One study estimates an annual growth rate of 4 percent in Virunga and attributes almost half that growth to the “extreme conservation” efforts of local wildlife groups.
On a late afternoon in June 2011, Gorilla Doctors received an emergency call. Trackers following the Umubano family of mountain gorillas in Rwanda noticed that Ijobo, a 2-day-old male, had a severely infected foot. They thought he might die.
“We were prepared for the worst,” says Dr. Mike Cranfield, the executive director of Gorilla Doctors, a nongovernmental organization that monitors the health of gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC with 12 full-time veterinarians and 16 support staffers, funded largely through individual donations and foundation grants.
Early the next morning, Cranfield packed his field medical kit and set out on the mountain, accompanied by Gorilla Doctors veterinarian Jan Ramer and Volcanoes National Park trackers and guides.
They found Umurimo, Ijobo’s mother, clinging tightly to him, his foot mangled and swollen. They decided it needed to be amputated, a risky surgery on a wild animal.
“The gorillas know the vets,” says Edward Bahizi, a Volcanoes National Park ranger. “When the vets put on their masks preparing to treat gorillas, they become totally aggressive.” The gorillas have learned that vets usually come equipped with medicine-loaded dart guns, which are painful and scary to the animals.
The Gorilla Doctors team first knocked out Umurimo with a tranquilizer dart, then anesthetized Ijobo with a gas mask. Charles, the dominant silverback of the group, supervised from afar but fortunately did not attack.
The vets worked quickly, removing a portion of the leg below the knee, disinfecting and closing the wound in 40 minutes. They hid a safe distance away to watch Umurimo’s reaction when she woke up from the anesthesia. To everyone’s relief, she cradled the groggy infant on her breast and joined the rest of her group gathered nearby.
Gorilla Doctors checked on Ijobo every day for a week, until they were certain he was healing properly.
“It was one of the most rewarding moments I’ve had in 17 years of this work,” Cranfield says, remembering the day he saw Ijobo playing normally a year later.
Gorilla Doctors treats an average of 18 animals per year. About half of them have suffered serious injuries from snares set in the park by people illegally hunting antelope and buffalo. The other half have have been gravely wounded in fighting among silverback males or have respiratory illnesses they may have caught from humans. Because gorillas and humans share 98 percent of their DNA, airborne viruses and bacteria spread easily between populations. Pneumonia can be deadly for gorillas if untreated.
Gorilla Doctors undoubtedly saves lives, but their extreme conservation approach is controversial. Traditional conservationists believe human contact with wild animals should be minimal to avoid spreading disease and developing dependence on human intervention. As animals lose their fear of humans, they become more vulnerable to hunters and more reliant on the protection of people.
In contrast, extreme conservation includes “efforts targeted to deliberately increase positive human influences,” as defined by primatologist Martha Robbins in her 2011 study on gorilla conservation strategies.
Cranfield acknowledges that no human contact would be the best way to preserve the species. “But that’s not realistic. That’s not the world we live in,” he said. “With the human population coming to 7 billion, we’re going to have to eke out a sustainable existence with wildlife.”
Extreme conservation techniques are being applied to other endangered species as well. Veterinarians have taken wild Sumatran rhinos into captivity for medically assisted breeding. The International Anti-Poaching Foundation advocates using military training and weapons to combat illegal trafficking of elephant tusks and rhino horns.
Tourism and conservation
Every morning, more than 100 trackers spread out in the Virunga mountains and Bwindi forest to locate each of the 36 habituated gorilla groups.
The trackers start where they left the gorillas sleeping the night before and follow food scraps and feces until they find the group eating breakfast, sometimes miles away. The gorillas are constantly on the move, and trackers follow them everywhere they go, keeping a distance of at least 7 meters.
Employed by the Rwandan, Ugandan and Congolese governments, these trackers serve several purposes. They protect the gorillas from would-be poachers. Nowadays gorillas are rarely directly targeted but are often caught in traps set for other animals. Some trackers are themselves former poachers, experts in finding and disarming snares. They’re also keen observers. They know when Inyongera is coughing, or when Bunyenyeri has been bitten by his brother. They record births, deaths, who’s mating with whom.
The trackers also habituate the gorillas, getting them used to the presence of nonthreatening humans, a process that takes up to three years of daily observation. This allows the trackers to alert Gorilla Doctors to any potential problems. And scientists are able to get close enough to observe individual behaviors and collect data.
Habituation also allows park rangers to lead groups of tourists to visit the gorillas for an hour a day. The park entry fees, a hefty $750 per day in Rwanda, pay the salaries of the trackers and guides and many others involved in maintaining the gorillas’ habitat.
“Tourism is the backbone of conservation,” guide Patrick Magirirane tells eight tourists still swooning from their encounter with Mr. Lucky and his brood. “We need people who love gorillas to come support the gorillas.”
In 2014 more than 27,000 people visited Volcanoes National Park, bringing in more than $15 million in tourism revenue. The Rwanda Development Board, a government agency, dedicates 5 percent of that to develop communities surrounding its national parks.
In one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, Rwandans have long relied on their parks’ rich natural resources for income, food and water. If it is to succeed in preserving the gorillas’ habitat, Rwanda must provide alternatives for those living near the national parks.
The Rwanda Development Board funds education, sanitation, infrastructure and agriculture projects determined by local leaders. More than 800 people from nearby communities are employed in government-sponsored conservation programs.
“If they don’t eat, if they don’t get jobs, they will go back to the park,” says park guide Jean Bosco Iryamukuru.
Conservationists like Iryamukuru are educating local residents to link the gorillas’ survival with their own. “It’s a process. Changing someone’s mentality takes a long time.”