Ruhengeri, Rwanda — Accompanied by two guides and a rifle-toting guard, we hike across miles of rich farmland below the rugged slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes, then hack our way with machetes through a tangle of bamboo, choking vines, and giant stinging nettles.
After an hour's ascent, one of our guides motions a halt. He crouches and emits a deep sound from his throat as he edges forward.
Out of dense undergrowth comes a similar response. It's a greeting from one of Rwanda's mountain gorillas -- a species that faces extinction unless today's efforts to preserve it succeed.
Rwanda, like many developing countries, faces the dilemma of feeding its own rapidly growing human population from a limited amount of productive land. In addition, this country's progress depends heavily on foreign exchange earned from the export of coffee, tea, cotton, and other cash crops.
But for the mountain gorilla, each acre placed under cultivation reduces the size of his habitat and increases the possibility of irreversible extinction.
In 1960, approximately 450 mountain gorillas, the rarest of the three species of gorillas, lived in the Virunga Volcanoes of Rwanda, Uganda, and Zaire. By 1978 the number of these peaceful, introverted vegetarians had dwindled to 270. For some 245 remaining creatures, survival seems more a question of economics than compassion.
In 1960, the Volcanoes National Park was created in Rwanda to conserve the unique flora and fauna of the region. In 1963, mounting economic pressure caused the Rwandan government to turn over more than one-third of the park to agriculture. The gorillas' world became suddenly much smaller. Even there, he is not safe.
Rwanda's native tribesmen, in their efforts to make a living from the land, further limit the gorillas' chance of survival. The pygmoid Batwa tribe hunts within the park for duiker, a small red, forest antelope, incidentally forcing gorillas to move higher up the slopes. In addition, snares set to trap small game often injure or kill a gorilla. Another threat is the Western demand for souvenir gorilla heads, skulls, and hands -- as well as for baby gorillas to stock zoos.
In 1979, an international consortium of wildlife organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund and the Washington-based African Wildlife Leadership Foundation, began helping the Rwandan government to save the remaining gorillas. The Mountain Gorilla Project is intended to preserve this species by addressing the economic pressures facing Rwandans.
Under Belgian director J. P. von der Becke, the project stresses the economic importance of the mountain gorillas and their habitat to Rwanda. Their efforts are directed toward a controlled development of tourism that will preserve the park and allow the gorillas to earn their keep and create local employment.
People eager to struggle up steep mountain slopes for a chance to view the gorillas are paying $30 each for the privilege. This money has allowed the project to hire, equip, and train local people as guides and park guards to conduct antipoaching patrols. In 1981, the project earned 7 million francs ($76, 000) for the Rwandan government.
The project's nationwide conservation education program stresses another vital point. Agricultural encroachment has cut the size of the park in half in the last 20 years. The remaining area is a watershed, necessary for the survival of people and agriculture far beyond its boundaries.
Nonetheless, in a developing country, such arguments may not be enough. ''If they want to take their land for their people,'' von der Becke says,''there's nothing we can do about it.''
Twenty feet ahead of us on the slopes of the volcano, a male gorilla carefully strips young plants for his morning brunch. Easily five feet tall sitting down, he is covered with thick black hair. His amber eyes are set deep in a wisely wrinkled face.
Agitated by our presence, he takes an eight-foot leap and crashes away through the jungle. For the next hour we play hide and seek with a family of nine gorillas as they migrate toward the border of Zaire.
Several times we get within 10 feet of a feeding gorilla. Their acceptance of our presence shows just how vulnerable these creatures are to the pressures that are threatening their existence.