Rwanda gorillas prosper despite guerrillas next door

Baby gorillas roll around as their mothers tuck into juicy plant shoots: mountain gorillas are highly endangered, but the 27 members of the Agashya family are well protected.

The dense misty forests of the Virunga mountain chain straddling Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo are home to over half of all mountain gorillas, but the jungles also host rebel fighters across the border into Congo.

Yet despite the threats, the population of these threatened primates has been rising for the past decade.

The total world population is estimated at 790, 480 of whom live here in the Virungas, the remainder in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

The positive trend, which comes in spite of protracted unrest on the Congolese side of the border, is largely due to progress made in curbing poaching, Rwandan authorities say.

Poaching "is declining every year" largely due to awareness campaigns in local communities, according to Telesphore Ngoga, who heads the conservation department at Rwanda Development Board.da

"There is no longer a situation where baby gorillas are poached," he said.

Augustin Basabose, acting director at the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), says that while poachers no longer really target the gorillas per se, they do still get caught in snares set for other wildlife such as antelopes.

Eating the mountain apes is taboo here, but they were previously targeted, with their hands used for grim trophies, while baby gorillas were seized for private illegal zoos.

Basabose is one of 20 people chosen by the Rwandan authorities this year to name 19 babies and one adult in the annual gorilla naming ceremony, which was first held in 2005.

Attended by members of the international community based in Kigali, but not by the primates themselves, the naming is supposed to create awareness about the need for mountain gorilla conservation and to promote tourism.

Tourism here is an important foreign currency earner, having brought in some $250 million in 2011.

A foreign visitor not resident in the region pays $750 for a permit to spend one hour in the company of the primates.

Once inside the park, a ranger welcomes the day's visitors -- never more than eight per group of habituated gorillas -- to guide them through the undergrowth lining the steep and slippery path.

The guide reminds the visitors of the rules to be obeyed while they observe the gorillas in the forests.

If an ape comes too close the visitor must move back, both out of prudence -- as the primates tower over the visitors and can weigh as much as 200 kilograms (440 pounds) -- and in order to respect their environment.

"We want to keep them as wild as possible," explained the guide, Francis Bayingana.

He is armed with a Kalashnikov rifle -- but more in case the group encounters an aggressive buffalo, than because of the security situation on the other side of the border.

The Congolese flanks of the Virunga mountains have been hard hit by the recent wave of violence on that side of the border.

In May army mutineers "crossed the park to arrive in the gorilla sector," said Emmanuel de Merode, director of the DR Congo's Virunga national park.

The Congolese park has been closed to tourists for the past several weeks, Merode said, adding that three rangers were killed in May, when they were ambushed on a road where they were protecting civilians.

In early June two other rangers received bullet and bayonet wounds, and the gorilla sector patrols in Congo were suspended.

Since then rangers have not managed to re-establish contact with two of the park's six gorilla families, who have taken refuge "in inaccessible zones," Merode added.

However, on the Rwandan side of the mountains, it is business as usual.

The only recent change of note is that joint patrols of Rwandan and Congolese rangers have come to a halt. At the end of the last such patrol the DRC rangers had difficulty making it back to their homes because of the fighting.

Some observers wonder if the gorillas in DRC will not cross over the border to escape the fighting.

"Gorillas are sensitive to the sound of bullets and do move from one country to another in search of food," said Basabose, who was unable to say whether such movements have been observed recently.

Rwandan conservationists say that in 2005 a gorilla family did cross into Rwanda from DRC and has been here ever since. They speculate that it might have been in order to escape instability in eastern DRC.

Back in the park, the Agashya family has finished its break. The head of the family, an imposing silverback, tells everyone -- visitors included -- that it's time to leave.

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