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GORILLA WARFARE. In the dense cover of Rwanda's mile-high forests, a quiet battle is being waged to save the magnificent mountain gorilla, whose only enemy - and only hope - is man

By Bunny McBrideSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 25, 1988



Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda

ROB CAMPBELL stood in a narrow mountain pathway of the mist-shrouded forest, camera pressed to his nose, focusing his lens on a 400-pound male ``silverback'' gorilla voraciously consuming a bamboo tree. The great ape was so close that Mr. Campbell and his five companions could hear every crunch. As he stood enthralled, Campbell felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. Expecting it to be one of his travelmates, Campbell spun around - only to find himself face to face with a pair of luminous brown eyes set in a massive black patent-leather face.

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The 300-pound silverback, which had been patiently waiting to pass, gently turned the tourist and slid by.

For Campbell and the others, experiences like this were a sublime reward for the torturous 2-hour climb up the lush, slippery slopes of Rwanda's Visoke Mountain. Such encounters are on the rise in a region known as the Virungas ecosystem, a string of fertile, mile-high mountains that straddle the borders of Rwanda, Zaire, and Uganda in central Africa. Here live nearly 300 of the world's 400 mountain gorillas. And here exists a novel tourism industry aimed at preserving these powerful, yet unaggressive, primates.

Mountain gorillas are one of the most endangered species on earth. There are no early figures on their population, but from 1960 to 1981 their numbers in the Virungas plummeted from about 500 to 242. (An estimated 100 more live 15 miles north, in Uganda's Impenetrable Forest).

The gorillas live in stable polygamous family groups and have no natural enemies. Other than humans. Humans have usurped their habitat for farming, sold them to zoos and research labs, and murdered them to make sculptures with their skulls or ashtrays with their hands.

During this decade, there has been a dramatic turnaround in the sorry fate of these creatures, particularly those living in Rwanda. Major credit for the change goes to the Mountain Gorilla Project (MGP), a consortium of international conservation organizations, including the African Wildlife Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund, working with the Rwandan government.

The project, founded in 1979 and situated in the Parc National des Volcans, which is Rwanda's corner of the Virungas, combines three strategies for preserving the apes. First, it provides regular patrols to catch poachers, collect snares, and monitor the gorilla population. Second, it seeks to educate local people about conservation.

The third strategy is where Rob Campbell and his tourist friends come in. The MGP has created a unique ``gorilla watching'' tourism industry in Rwanda, which has created a strong economic incentive for gorilla protection in the country.

There is no doubt that Rwanda's commitment to the program is rooted as much in money as in conservation. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa, its 5.5 million people living within 10,000 square miles. Ninety-five percent of its citizens are peasants, and the country is an almost uninterrupted patchwork of cultivated plots, except in the Parc National des Volcans. With increased demand for farmland, nearly half of the park was turned over to cultivation in 1973, reducing it to about 46 square miles. In the late 1970s, farmers living at the base of the Virungas pressed to obtain even more of the park.

``Researchers like myself and conservationists familiar with the region knew that further human encroachment on the park would inevitably lead to the gorilla's extinction,'' says MGP director Craig Sholley. ``It would also lead to uncontrolled water runoff and soil erosion. Most of us felt that the only thing that might convince a developing country like Rwanda that saving the park and the gorillas was important was tourism money. In our view, the only alternative was to habituate gorilla groups for tourists.''