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.
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.''
Between 1979 and 1983, this plan was carried out among four gorilla groups. MGP staff approached the animals on a daily basis, sitting a bit closer and staying a bit longer each day until trust was established. Today, tourists, accompanied by a ranger-guide, can sit among these groups in their natural habitat.
``In effect, tourists serve as a guard force for the gorillas, deterring poachers just by their presence,'' says Russ Mittemier of the World Wildlife Fund. Visitors are coached on how to sit among the gorillas without provoking them. They're forbidden to touch the gorillas, but sometimes contact is unavoidable. ``I've had a baby jump on my back and steal an earring,'' says Diana McMeekin, vice-president of the African Wildlife Foundation, ``and any number of people have had their cameras snatched.''
Last year's 6,000 visitors generated half a million dollars in much-needed foreign currency through park-entry and gorilla-watching fees. When the charge for visiting the gorillas doubles this year, to about $145 a person, the annual intake will jump to $1 million. With money spent on gas, lodging, food, and souvenirs, gorilla-watching has become a multimillion-dollar enterprise. In fact, according to Mr. Sholley, tourism is now the No. 2 earner of foreign capital in Rwanda (after coffee and tea), ``totally due to gorillas.''
Without the pioneering antipoaching efforts of the late American zoologist Dian Fossey, there would probably be no mountain gorillas left to protect. Dr. Fossey initiated the first long-term study of these primates in 1967, when she set up Karisoke Research Station on the remote 10,000-foot-high saddle between Karisimbe and Visoke Mountains. A new biography by Farley Mowatt (``Woman in the Mists'') describes Fossey's extraordinary research and rancorous struggle to save the species. Her efforts to protect them from poachers was heroic, at times frantic. She once went so far as to kidnap the son of a poacher and burn the belongings of his family.
In 1977, following the brutal slaying of Digit, a beloved gorilla that Fossey had had contact with since his birth 10 years earlier, she launched the Digit Fund, a successful international campaign to support antipoaching foot patrols within the park. But Fossey's passion for the well-being of the mountain gorilla was so intense that she alienated other researchers, locals, and park and government officials. On Dec. 28, 1985, she was murdered, and the Rwandan government tried and convicted in absentia her assistant, Wayne McGuire. It is speculated, however, that she was killed by poachers or by someone contracted by Rwandan officials who saw her as a roadblock to the lucrative gorilla tourism industry.
Indeed, Fossey did not even endorse the founding of the MGP, because she was concerned that its multiple activities would divert attention and funds from her single-minded aim to halt poaching. Yet, the MGP appears to have made a profound contribution to Fossey's goal of gorilla preservation.
With the new Fossey biography and a forthcoming Warner Bros. film about her (starring Sigourney Weaver), growing numbers of tourists will no doubt be drawn to Rwanda. Will increased demand result in an exploitation of the gorillas? ``We won't allow it,'' says Sholley. ``Only six visitors are allowed to visit each of the four gorilla groups for just one hour a day.... Not that people don't suggest abuse. At least twice a day I'm asked to increase the size of the tourist groups to seven. But I say no, ... because we can't afford to destroy the gorillas' tranquillity.''
But, given the economic needs of Rwanda and the tempting profitability of gorilla-watching, there's no guarantee that Sholley won't be cornered into at least an occasional yes. When recently pressed by the Rwandan government to habituate a fifth gorilla group for tourists, the MGP staff complied. It did not, however, succeed in habituating the target group.
Beyond these pressures, there remain unstaved fears that contact with humans could present grave health problems for the gorillas. Shirley McGrail, director of the International Primate Protection League in Summerville, S.C., is concerned about gorilla tourism as it is now conducted, because ``it is not 100 percent safe for the gorillas, who are vulnerable to human parasites and viruses. Everyone visiting them should be forced to wear face masks and carry plastic bags to pick up their own waste ... and it should be mandated that they bring evidence that they have tested negatively in the standard tuberculosis test.''
Dr. Sy Kalter, a leading diagnostician of simian viruses in the United States, corresponded with Fossey on this very issue just before her death. ``I'm in a very small minority [among primatologists],'' he says, ``but I'm against the tourism. If it could be set up so observers were at a distance, that would be one thing, but this crawling around among the gorillas at a close distance could spell disaster.''
In April, 13 gorillas in one group came down with colds, stirring concern among the researchers. According to Ms. McMeekin of the African Wildlife Foundation, who stays in close touch with MGP staff, ``It is not likely that there is a connection between tourists and the gorillas' sickness. They always get colds at the height of the rainy season, and this year it has been unusually chilly and very rainy.'' She adds that the MGP usually avoids giving medication to the gorillas; but, with such a significant number ailing within one group, two veterinarians were called in to observe the gorillas and dart them with antibodies. Afterward, ``they were carefully watched for several days, and I received a report that all of them are recovering,'' says McMeekin.
Clearly, tourists need to be educated about possible negative effects of their privileged association with the mountain gorillas. Meanwhile, MGP's effort to educate Rwandans about conservation has been highly effective. According to Sholley, ``In the early 1980s, when asked if it was important to save [Parc des Volcans], 60 percent of the public surrounding the park said, `No, we want to use the land for our [gardens].' Now 70 percent are adamantly in favor of saving the park. They understand that it is their water supply, their protection against erosion, and that the gorilla tourism has provided lots of jobs for locals.''
The MGP's antipoaching patrols have also met with success. In the decade before the creation of the MGP (and the Digit Fund), about 15 gorillas a year were killed in Rwanda. Echoing Fossey's efforts, MGP and Rwandan park personnel equipped and trained antipoaching patrols that continue to thwart and arrest poachers and to uncover thousands of snares. (Snares that poachers set in the park to catch small antelopes have long been perilous for gorillas.) Since 1983, not one gorilla has been poached in Rwanda, and the population there has slowly begun to rise.
The next step in the conservation drive is to halt poaching and habitat destruction in Uganda and Zaire, which contain much of the range of the gentle gorillas. In 1984, Zaire established a project modeled on the MGP, and in 1986, Uganda set up a similar project in its Impenetrable Forest.
But these programs are not yet successful. A recent visitor to Nairobi spied a squat-shaped wooden sculpture with a curious head in the window of one of the many shops that sell native-produced crafts. She went into the shop to ask about the origins of the figure, and discovered it was from Zaire. The head of this sculpture was a gorilla skull.